Letter to the editor: Vote yes on June 13 for a new middle school

Posted:  Monday, June 12, 2017 - 3:15pm
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Yesterday I cast my ballot in favor of the middle school bond. I cast this vote as a citizen concerned about fiscal responsibility, respecting our community’s history and vision of the future, a mother of two children, but most of all as an advocate for students with special needs and someone deeply concerned about violence prevention and recovery. As a former school psychologist and a trauma survivor myself, I toured the current middle school with the perspective of children with mobility needs, anxiety or trauma history, and potential for bullying. 

A renovation of the building could make it function for 20 years, but it will not address several important concerns regarding students, teachers, and community members who are differently abled, have anxiety, or a history of trauma. I have recently read about other proposals for modest renovation -- those, too, would be incapable of addressing my concerns.  

Yes, the current building allows for a person using a wheelchair or other mobility aides to access the building; however, I question if they are able to have this access with dignity. The traffic flow for a person using assistive technology varies from that of their peers. These students are denied the same social interactions of their typically abled peers. Independence and self sufficiency, a critical piece of being a middle school student,  is not an option for these students as they maneuver tight corners, blind hallways and multiple lifts and/or elevators to transition between classes. The current facility -- in any renovated form -- can at best meet the barest of minimum accessibility standards.  

A new middle school would be constructed with universal design in mind, a building for ALL students with minimal elevation changes, larger hallways and doors, and elevators that are up to date and easily accessible. Differently abled students, teachers and community members are INCLUDED in the original plan, not thrown in as an afterthought.  These universal design principles cannot be incorporated as a renovation of the existing structure without effectively rebuilding the entire thing.

The current building has several blind hallways and corridors that are not easily monitored. Staff makes a strong effort to be in the hallways during transitions and do attendance following each transition, but the sheer size of the building works against the effort to monitor students. The current administration and faculty have successfully created an environment that supports mutual respect and  personal responsibility, but middle school is a time of strong social pressure coupled with still developing brains and impulse control. Poor decisions that can affect the future of several lives can be made in a short period of time. One of the best bully prevention methods is to ensure that students are aware that they can be seen at ALL times. This is not possible in the current building and the patch option does not address this issue. Although no recent incidents have been reported, alumni of the building can often cite nefarius behavior that occurred in those long blind hallways. It only takes one incident to harm a child and open the school to possible lawsuits. Even in the absence of incidents occurring in these blind hallways, a child with anxiety or a history of trauma could find these spaces threatening. School avoidance is a very real problem and is often the result of real or perceived threats to personal or psychological safety. Environment plays into this anxiety as these hallways provide students with a potential threat to their safety. I am not OK with waiting 20 years hoping that something bad does not happen, or allowing students to worry about what COULD happen to them. The new school design consolidates the learning spaces reducing travel time and unmonitored traffic areas. 

Consolidating learning spaces allows for better communication and collaboration among staff both in general and special education. Planning time is at a premium, so quick check-ins with faculty peers ensures that teachers are up to date on students’ progress and challenges, strategies or accommodations that may be effective, and ways that staff can work together on upcoming projects. Consolidating staff could lead to a better sense of community for the teachers which goes a long way in maintaining staff, ensuring student success and preventing teacher burn-out. All of our students, both general and special education, benefit from having administration, general and special education teachers across the grades communicating face to face on a regular basis. 

Although the education benefits of building a new middle school may not warrant the $26 million price tag; when factoring in the cost of renovating an old building with a 20 year life expectancy, the energy savings, and the potential to use the MET building to promote business in the area; the answer appears clear to me. Stop funneling money into a school that will never truly meet the needs of an important part of our education community and has areas that are structurally unsound. Vote YES on June 13 for a new middle school. 

 

Emily LeBlanc-McConnell lives in Camden