Tuesday September 18, 2012

Children in Bellows Falls, Westminster, Grafton, Athens, Rockingham, Saxtons River, Bartonsville and Cambridgeport have waited 50 years to attend a school that was healthy, clean, well heated and cooled without drafts and suffocating heat. Most importantly, they've waited for a school ready to enter the 21st century.

Due to a lack of loving care and simple maintenance, the Bellows Falls Middle School was left to deteriorate to an almost dead state. Though revitalized in the 1950's -- an event that I just missed when I entered Bellows High School in that building in 1961 -- the school seemed already near capacity. We didn't complain; we set up traffic patterns to move between classes and moved on. We won state basketball titles in the tiny gym and moved on. When I interviewed at Smith College my interviewer told me that BFHS had the reputation of turning out some of the best educated students in New England.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, my children attended the re-dubbed Bellows Falls Middle School. The school was beginning to show its age, but was still turning out some pretty well-educated students, excellent teachers still roamed the halls. As far as I could see, not much maintenance was being done. The kids were complaining of freezing classrooms, searing heat, and whining about not having a big gym.

A decade or so later, a was on the School Board. Time and again proposals came up for repairs, and there was a noticeable decline in academics and behavior.

As we moved into the 21st century so much changed: administrators, teachers, students and our society -- values, goals, hopes, families and, most important, methods of teaching. Yet there stood this rag tag old building still solid but unfit for the job that stood ahead.

Before we could enter the battle of academics we needed to have the right arsenal. We owed it to not just this generation, but to their children and their children's children. Thankfully we won the battle. Now, even though there was a three-week delay, students can now march excitedly and happily into that building, though there's still some work to be done.

This great and loved building is a legacy now standing strong and new and technologically ready to take new generations into a future where they can indeed "enter to learn and go forth To serve." Now the last and greatest battle must be fought: to regain that academic prestige and superiority that we once had. Where did it go?

Do we blame demographics? Standardized testing? Teachers unable to teach? Students' short attention spans? A decline in family support systems? Drugs and alcohol? Poverty? Bullying? Discipline, or lack thereof (or too much)?

If we continue to use the same script we will continue to get the same results. No matter how you tweak it, how loud you demand better results, how many staff you threaten, standardized testing will not improve academic superiority or pride. It takes a lot of hard work, along with an honest, intelligent leadership, in conjunction with a willing, caring and courageous staff. And some patience. There are ways to measure progress, but that's not the main thrust -- our goal should be the children and what skills they need in this global economy or to work down the road.

I want to congratulate all the people who fought so hard for the beautiful, new and up-dated middle school. This school is ready to shelter, protect and educate. Skills will be taught, friends made, mentors found, manners learned. Now let's make sure the right leaders, teachers and staff are there and encouraged, and most importantly the best methods are used to make these things happen for all.

Catherine Bergmann writes from Bellows Falls.