Recognizing that the city's elementary schools were in deteriorating condition, 10 years ago the Gloucester School Committee commissioned what was known as the Mount Vernon report.
The comprehensive analysis included an evaluation of the heating and electrical systems, plumbing, roofs, energy deficiencies, presence or absence of asbestos, structural integrity of the buildings, fire alarms, clocks, bells, and security system.
West Parish Elementary School was included in this analysis, and like the other schools, was found to be not only deficient in its physical condition, but also obsolete in terms of its ability to accommodate the education program.
Faced with a $100 million price tag to renovate or rebuild the city's elementary schools, the School Committee held parent meetings at all the elementary schools in 2002 to share the results of the report.
The committee also floated the idea of reconfiguring the grade levels in the elementary schools as a potential way of saving money. The notion was to have the elementary schools become home to the lower elementary grade levels (kindergarten through second grade), and then to create an "elemiddle" school at Fuller that would house all the city's third- through fifth-graders.
This idea was soundly rejected by the parent community, and the School Committee dropped it. Part of the resistance was the sense that the school buildings were driving the education program rather than the other way around.
So in 2004, the School Committee embarked on a process to define the optimum education program that fostered student achievement, and had the support of the stakeholders. From there, the School Committee would then determine how best the buildings could be suited for the education program.
The result of this process was the Plan for Effective Learning Communities which was adopted by the School Committee in 2006. The plan concluded that the ideal learning community was a grade-level span from kindergarten to fifth grade with no more than two or three classes per grade.
The adoption of this plan triggered a series of decisions and investments that are apparent today. Fuller School was closed in the downsizing of the district that occurred in 2007. The alternative downsizing would have been to consolidate smaller schools into the Fuller, resulting in as many as eighth classes per grade which was contrary to the Plan for Effective Learning Communities.
In 2008, the city spent $3.5 million on permanent modular additions to the other elementary schools to accommodate the redistricted students from Fuller School, and Beeman and Plum Cove schools were transitioned to K-5 elementary schools whereas before Plum Cove was a feeder school into Beeman.
In keeping with its commitment to the Plan for Effective Learning Communities, the city this past year invested a few million dollars in new roofs for East Gloucester, Plum Cove, Beeman, and Veterans Memorial schools.
A recent survey conducted by the School Committee about its approach shows very strong support for the track that the city and the school district is on. Also, student achievement levels are improving. I daresay there is little to no chance of the School Committee reversing its commitment to the Plan for Effective Learning Communities.
We still need to address the building needs of our schools and West Parish has been identified as the priority, based on its condition.
The city now has the opportunity to obtain approximately 50 percent reimbursement from the Massachusetts State Building Authority, and we should seize it.
To get to this point has been 10 years in the making.
Carolyn Kirk is mayor of the city of Gloucester.