Opinion: The Broken Ground site is best for education

Students participate in a Lego robotics club during an after-school program at Abbot-Downing School in Concord in 2017.

Students participate in a Lego robotics club during an after-school program at Abbot-Downing School in Concord in 2017. Monitor file


Published: 12-06-2023 9:29 AM

Christopher Herr is a teacher at Concord High School, a resident of the South End in Concord since 2014, and a parent of three.

I have yet to read a letter to the editor promoting the Broken Ground location for the new middle school, so in the interest of variety, and to put forward perspectives that I have not yet seen published, I’m going to explain what feels missing from the debate for me, and why the Broken Ground (BG) site might just be the best option.

First, the primary job of any school building is education. As part of the RMS project process, the district facilitated meetings of stakeholders to develop site goals. Summarized in the Oct. 17 presentation at the board’s working session, there are six education goals (more than any other subtopic) and the BG site outscored the current site 11 to 6. Notably, the BG site provides better potential for future expansion and less disruption to students during construction.

Why does the potential for future expansion matter? Because we have no idea what the middle school population will be for the next 50+ years. The district commissioned a demographic study in 2018 that projected the K-12 population through the 2029 school year. The current construction estimate is for the new building to be ready in 2028. Put together, that means that we have no projections for what the student population will be beyond the first year the new middle school will be open, and that’s if construction finishes on time.

In the absence of any idea of what the future population will be, and in a community that is currently prioritizing adding housing, it seems prudent to build a new middle school on a site that has the best potential for future expansion.

If you need proof of how valuable that potential is, look no further than the recent news about the expansion of Bow Elementary School. Surprisingly, in the face of a statewide trend of declining enrollment, Bow has experienced a 20% increase in enrollment in the last 10 years. As a result, the district is adding 8 classrooms to the current building.

According to a Concord Monitor article (11/12), “[f]or several years, the school has dealt with a space shortage, leading to unconventional classroom arrangements, including the use of former storage closets for special education classes and hallways turned into makeshift learning spaces.”

The reality is that we have no idea what enrollment will look like 10 years from now, let alone 50 years from now. The BG site offers the best flexibility to ensure that if we need to expand in order to offer the best learning environment to our students, we have the space to do it at the lowest cost possible. I think we can all agree that we don’t want future students having class in a closet because we knowingly chose the site with less potential for future expansion.

Second, let’s not discount the disruption factor caused by construction when evaluating the education site goals. At the current site, construction of the new building is estimated to take 30 months, demolition of the current building will add an additional 5 months, and the new fields will not be ready for 5 years after construction on the new building starts on the existing fields.

If built at the current site, three years of Concord’s middle school students will have their learning disrupted by noise. Five years of students will have no access to outdoor fields on site beyond the lawn behind Abbot-Downing School (ADS) (will that be shared for 5 years?).

At the BG site, the new school would be situated much further away from the current elementary schools and behind a group of trees. The disruption impact on student learning will be far more limited at the BG site and current RMS students will have continued access to their fields at the current site. That’s a win-win.

If COVID taught us anything, it’s how damaging prolonged disruption to education can be, especially for our youngest students. Why would we subject more students to more learning disruptions for such a long period when it is avoidable? Our most vulnerable students, the same ones who paid the highest price during COVID, will be the same students who are asked to pay an even higher price than their peers if we build on the current RMS site. I’m all for saving green space, but not at that cost.

Choosing a new school site is complicated and we are all entitled to our own priorities. While I appreciate the arguments being made about green space, proximity to downtown, and all the other reasons to choose the current site, if we want to prioritize education in choosing a middle school site, then, in my opinion, the BG site is the best choice.