The Brunswick school system is undergoing major and controversial changes this year. The new Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School, located along McKeen St. within the block between Spring St. and Stanwood St., is slated to open its doors in September 2011 to 600 students. The construction of the school has acted as a catalyst for the alteration of the entire Brunswick school system.
With the addition of the Harriet Beecher Stowe School comes the closing of two elementary schools. The Hawthorne School, located at 46 Federal Street, is already closed and the Longfellow School, at 21 Longfellow Avenue, is in its final year. The remaining elementary schools, Jordan Acres and the Coffin School, will now host preschool through second grade children. Starting next year, all Brunswick children in grades three to five will attend the Harriet Beecher Stowe School.
This change is controversial in Brunswick because it alters a long-standing system and instead brings all the children together in third grade rather than in sixth at the Brunswick Junior High School. Though all the students would be combining later regardless, the change raises concerns about the switch from smaller neighborhood elementary school to larger town schools.
Secretary of Development and College Relations John Cross attended the Longfellow School and acknowledged the issues raised by overhauling the system like this.
"There's always been kind of a question mark, I think, about how it's all going to work with everything from bus schedules to having kids go to one much larger school as opposed to the neighborhood schools," Cross said.
According to Brunswick Superintendant Paul Perzanoski, the Hawthorne School was chosen to close due to enrollments as low as 80 students, a potential effect of the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Longfellow was the second school closed because of renovations necessary to maintain compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Now is a fitting time to update the school system due to the availability of federal funding for the project. Rather than using town money to pay for massive repairs on the elementary schools in order to keep them up to building codes, Brunswick took advantage of the time window in which state and federal funding was available for the construction of new schools. Funding was not available for the renovation of existing schools.
Under the Maine new school projects initiative, "the majority of the project is paid for by the state and then the town had to come up with a certain percentage as well," Perzanoski said. Costs ended up being lower than expected.
"It started off as a $28 million project, but because of the economy the bids came in almost $7 million less—so the state has savings and the town had savings," Perzanoski added. "It's a joint effort but the majority of money is paid for by the state."
According to a September newsletter from Town Clerk Jim Hartford, construction of the new school is set to be complete this April. In order to be in compliance with a local mandate regarding environmentally friendly schools, this new building is being constructed with LEED certification in mind as well as participation in the Efficiency Maine High Performance School Grant Program. The school will reuse a variety of materials, including granite steps, cast stone panels and decorative light fixtures, all from the old Brunswick High School that used to stand at the site.
However, preceding financial and environmental concerns exist regarding how these changes will affect the most important group of people involved—the students. The dedication of the administration to make this a smooth transition is vital to the process.
Perzanoski does not forsee any problems with the changes to the new system.
"I think the students usually adapt better than the adults do, so I'm not expecting to have too many glitches as far as the students are concerned."
"The principals have been great," Cross said. "Lots of great students have graduated from these schools and that will continue."
A few of these great Brunswick graduates are current Bowdoin students.
First year Chelsea Bruno served as President of the Brunswick High School Student Coucil last year and worked closely with the elementary schools for many projects. Bruno described the schools as a "cohesive, close-knit group of schools," and noted that the main hurdle for a lot of people in making the change was a sentimental connection to the Longfellow school.
Bruno, however, believes that though the changes will initially be extreme, the long-lasting effects will benefit students. She believes that having students altogether for three years before middle school will help ease the transition from elementary school to middle school.
Bruno hopes the change "will break down some of the social barriers that generally arise in middle school," she said. "I think it'll be a positive effect overall in the long run; I think it will take a lot of transitional time just because it's such a new system."
Sam Turner '14 also attended Brunswick High School and is a graduate of the Longfellow School. He, like Bruno, believes that the construction of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School will help facilitate an easier move to middle school and also hopes it will eliminate competition between the schools.
"The one benefit of [the change] is that parents always have an idea about which school is the best," Turner said. "I don't think there was ever any conclusive thing saying one school was better than the other, but as long as you have four options for a school, even if a quarter of people think each school is best, you still have people with different opinion."
Overall, optimism regarding the project overpowers any trepidation the changes have sparked.
"Brunswick has always paid a lot of attention to its school system," Cross said. "It's just somewhat unchartered waters, that's all."