If voters approve a new Monument Mountain Regional High School, students seek input in its design
Great Barrington — If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If you fail a second time, then try even harder.
That seems to be the message coming out of Monument Next Steps, a group formed last year to explore possibilities for the fixing what ails the 50-year-old Monument Mountain Regional High School building. Next Steps has pulled out all the stops in preparation for what could be another stab at the prize.
This will be the third try since 2013 to get state aid for the ailing high school. Within the span of one year, a pair of $50 million-plus proposals failed when Great Barrington, by far the largest of the three towns in the district, failed to approve an override to Proposition 2½, a state statute that limits tax levy increases. In both cases, the state would have paid for almost 41 percent of the cost, not counting incentives.
For this go-around, the panel has crafted a much more compelling vision for a new or renovated school and has been aggressive in seeking the input of faculty, staff and members of the community. In addition, district officials have the help of a Monument alumnus and current students are also involved in providing input for the vision and design.
The students presented their concepts to the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee at its meeting on May 2. In advance of the school committee’s meeting this Thursday, a student-led tour of the aging building will begin at 6 p.m.
Joshua Shapiro is a 2014 Monument alumnus and a recent graduate of New York University, where he now works. As part of a senior project at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, Shapiro received a grant to host an educational reform symposium called the Paideia Project. Two of the issues he specifically identified were school architecture and curriculum redesign.
The goal of Edify Projects, sponsored in part by NYU Steinhardt and hosted in collaboration with Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching & Learning, is “to create a national high school competition in which students reimagine their schools’ physical and programmatic design — thinking critically about their own education and brainstorming innovative ideas for a future-oriented K-12 education system,” Shapiro said in announcing the initiative.
This year the program was piloted by more than 50 current NYU and Monument students. Shapiro said he plans to expand the project to include more schools.
“What’s great about choosing Monument is the community is right in the middle of these conversations,” Shapiro said in a recent interview.
Led by senior Lucy Doren, about 20 Monument students created a survey to distribute to fellow students, broke up into small groups and began imagining a design crafted around a core schedule, natural lighting, an enclosed courtyard, break-out spaces and more space for the school’s growing career and vocational technical education program.
Click here to see the names and photographs of some of the Monument students involved in the project. Doren was the leader and actually used the project as a second-semester internship at Monument.
The Next Steps panel, which includes Shapiro, was tasked with recommending to the school committee whether to renovate and add to the existing building, or simply construct a new building and demolish the old one. Next Steps members were unable to reach a clear consensus on that issue.
Doren’s group recommended a renovation and reconstruction of the existing building rather than building a new school from the ground-up, in part because retaining the current school provided an accessible framework to start with, though Shapiro said many of the ideas the students envision could be incorporated into a new building, as well.
See video below of the Monument Next Steps meeting of April 23, 2019. Fast forward to 41:00 to see Lucy Doren’s presentation on student ideas for a new high school:
“A lot of what we’re thinking about is the flow of the school, because it’s very sectioned off,” Doren told the school committee. “The back hallway is very disconnected from the front, the academic wings are very disconnected from where art and a lot of our CVTE stuff happens. So that was the biggest goal. The biggest outcome that we wanted from this was connection, and we think we kind of achieved that.”
In an Edge interview, Doren said she has been interested in the project for a long time.
“We knew from the get-go that this should be done with students at the table,” said Doren, who will study public health and politics this fall at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “It’s just coming up with designs but advocating with student voices.”
Shapiro said an added bonus of having the Monument students involved in the design of the new school is the sense of ownership they will have over a new building. Obviously, not all of their recommendations will be incorporated because some of them could prove impractical and the school committee will have to negotiate with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will presumably provide significant funding for the project when, and if, taxpayers approve it.
“They will be excited to come to a school that they helped shape,” Shapiro said. “We really believe the conversation should be around educational vision and what spaces are necessary.”
One of the most interesting statistics that came out of the Monument student survey is that 97 percent of the students who responded reported that they did not use their lockers at all.
“The lockers are everywhere but none of them are being used,” Shapiro chuckled. That’s just empty space that you can use for other things.”
The district is still in the early stages — there is no actual design yet, for example — but several teachers and outsiders have attended the Next Steps meetings to give input into what would be needed in a new or renovated school.
Earlier this year presentations were made on how a new school could be a boon to Monument’s CVTE and its new coordinator Sean Flynn, who attended the NYU symposium with the students and is also a longtime Monument guidance counselor.
“I think the main thing [about 2013 and 2014] is there wasn’t really a compelling educational vision and it was just like a new building for the sake of a new building rather than a new building to help the CVTE program,” Shapiro said.
The Monument students traveled to the NYU symposium May 6 to present their findings. For a preview of the designs, click here.
Thursday’s school committee meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the auditorium. Next Steps will present its findings at that time. A student-led tour of the building will start an hour before that.