Rethinking the schoolhouse

News that Marblehead’s Elbridge Gerry School may be poised to fade into history is probably not a surprise to local educators and parents who send their children to the 112-year-old school.

A school study concluded the Gerry, with its faulty boiler and leaky roof, is not a safe place for children to attend school. Marblehead School Committeewoman Jennifer Schaeffner’s summary of the school’s condition could probably serve as an appropriate epitaph for the old building: “The Gerry School doesn’t meet the standards of our children.”

So what now? The town is already engaged in a study to chart the course for improving and modernizing school buildings. That process puts Marblehead a short step behind Swampscott and Saugus in undertaking the process of ensuring 21st century students can attend 21st century schools.

Marblehead is taking a painful first step to separating itself from the past by acknowledging definitively that the Gerry, beloved as it is, can no longer meet the needs of town schools. That step is likely to lead parents, town leaders and concerned local property taxpayers to ask some important and overarching questions about the state of education in Marblehead.

Saugus and Swampscott residents have embarked on that conversation with residents and educators quickly finding themselves in a broad-ranging and philosophical education debate.

A proposal for a single Swampscott kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school is significant enough to invite a town-wide discussion about how best to educate the town’s youngest residents.

Implicit in that discussion is the exercise of weighing the pros and cons of neighborhood-oriented primary education versus the focus and resources that can be brought to bear in a single elementary school.

Saugus has already embarked on a radical reformation of its educational system with a bold plan to build a middle school-high school complex and a major elementary school reorganization. The idea is so innovative it could provide a blueprint for other communities.

Marblehead isn’t Saugus or Swampscott and, for many residents, giving up the Gerry is going to be hard. Generation after generation of the town’s children attended the school. Gerry parent Stephanie Callahan told the Item last week that “90 percent” of the parents of students attending the Gerry were involved on a daily basis in the school.

That outstanding involvement can be translated into a source of energy and inspiration for school planners in Marblehead. If Saugus is a community determined to redefine education and Swampscott is a community determined to unify education, then Marblehead can refocus the definition of community school to ensure the town’s plans are founded on parental involvement.

Education has evolved over the years and decades and, by necessity, the ways schools teach and where they teach has changed and been redefined. The Gerry’s final chapter as a school could precede its next chapter as a building housing another vital service for Marblehead, possibly a community center or senior housing.

More Stories From Marblehead