SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 9, 2012

The goal: A modern middle school for Beverly

Maria T. Decker
The Salem News

---- — A little over two years ago, the Beverly school district began the process of developing a plan to focus our work as a district on what occurs in our buildings. This in turn allowed us to strengthen relationships between students and staff, as well as the instruction that occurs in the classroom. As we reflected upon this regarding Briscoe Middle School, it became glaringly obvious of the constraints that we have to overcome in order to adequately provide current and best practice instruction to our students. This led us to embrace the need for a new middle school. Few in our community would disagree.

Briscoe Middle School is an obsolete building that has served this community well for almost 90 years. Constructed in 1923 and located on only 6 acres of land, Briscoe is a crowded and aged facility. Its structural deficiencies, lack of technological infrastructure and severe space limitations inhibit the regular occurrence and full implementation of best practice and innovative programming we have brought to education in Beverly. The constraints that the building has put on the administration, staff and students in equitably meeting the intended goals established by the district are clearly evident. Yet the high-quality leadership, teaching and learning that goes on daily, despite the facility’s limitations, is commendable.

The School Committee fully recognizes the critical need for providing a robust educational experience for all its students. Over the past 14 years, the city of Beverly has set about the process of identifying gaps and inadequacies in the educational infrastructure and has moved steadily to address them. Together, the school district and city have achieved a high degree of success. With the elementary schools and high school renovations complete, the last remaining piece is the renovation of the middle school, which will provide the type of environment necessary for children to learn the skills needed to succeed in our increasingly global economy.

The first step in the process of building a new middle school began late in 2011 when both the School Committee (Dec. 14, 2011) and the City Council (Dec. 19, 2011) unanimously voted in support of filing a statement of interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Drawing on the results from the work completed the previous year by the Strategic Planning Committee’s Facilities Planning Group, the statement of interest outlined the constraints that the Briscoe building has on preparing students for higher education and the 21st century.

The School Committee, along with city and district administration, jointly filed a statement of interest with the MSBA on Jan. 6, 2012. Our application, along with all other new and repeat statement-of-interest applications received, is currently under review. The well-written, 20-plus-page document clearly outlines the needs for a new middle school. In this plan, we are classified as a Priority 7 school, which means that the plan consists of “replacement of or addition to obsolete buildings in order to provide for a full range of programs consistent with state and approved local requirements.” Included in our filed plan is the caveat that should too much time elapse, we could become a Priority 1 school, meaning “replacement or renovation of a building which is structurally unsound or otherwise in a condition seriously jeopardizing the health and safety of schoolchildren where no alternative exists.”

Late in January 2012, state Treasurer Steven Grossman, along with lead members of the MSBA team, toured both Beverly High School and, later that day, Briscoe Middle School. This allowed these key individuals to see how successful Beverly was in its most recent building project and, more importantly, to see firsthand after touring Briscoe what we were describing in our just-filed statement of interest.

At this point, we are awaiting word from the MSBA regarding our statement of interest. Ideally, we will hear a positive response from the state to engage in more specific discussion regarding the best educational, practical and cost-effective solution to providing education to our middle school students. In the interim, the commitment of the School Committee and district administration, as well as the dedication of the leadership and teaching staff at Briscoe, along with constant attention to the building, will continue to allow us to creatively provide a comprehensive, exploratory middle school curriculum in a tired but strong and beautiful building.

Briscoe Middle School has served our community well but is reaching the end of its useful life as an educational facility. We are spending much time and money keeping it operational and safe for student use as we plan for an updated 21st-century facility to educate our preteens and young adolescents. Given our Yankee ingenuity, we do the best with what we have to get through our daily objectives. However, the issues outlined in our statement of interest show the persistent, systemic challenges of the Briscoe building that limit our ability to implement a modern learning experience and achieve academic excellence. A 21st-century facility, devoid of inefficiencies and distractions, will enable us to achieve our mission to provide engaging and equitable opportunities to enhance and sustain learning for all our students. The School Committee and administration look to the citizens of the city of Beverly to continue their strong support of the schools and this initiative as we move forward.

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Maria T. Decker is president of the Beverly School Committee.