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Dan Lawlor: Time to Fix Gilbert Stuart Middle School

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


The environmental factors that are affecting our youth in many Providence Schools are huge-and depressing. Just in the past three years, in middle school buildings across the great city of Providence, I’ve seen an asbestos curtain in a middle school auditorium, peeling (lead?) paint, mold in supply closets, sewage leaks, decaying science equipment, and pipes leaking into a cafeteria. What are the health situations of students and staff at these buildings? Asthma levels? Allergies? Cancer rates?

A year or so ago, I ran into a former student, now in high school. His old middle school, Samuel Bridgham, was being turned into an elementary school. Truth be told, he wasn’t sad to see it go. I mentioned to him I thought it was unfortunate that Bridgham was becoming an elementary school because of the lack of windows in some classrooms. He looked at me quizzically, “My elementary class didn’t have windows either.”

The more we continue to defer maintenance of public school buildings, the greater the costs will be in the future. For generations, city and state politicians have found other priorities for taxpayer dollars. In the last few years, without much reporting, the chickens have been coming home to roost. Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School, in Hartford, closed due to building maintenance issues. Samuel Bridgham Middle School, in the West End, closed due to building maintenance issues. The need for a massive mold removal campaign at Mt. Pleasant, and scaffolding covering exits outside the doors of Gilbert Stuart (for over 3 years) are continuing examples. Some buildings have had renovation or construction – Central, Classical, and PCTA as cases in point. Each of those had re-vamps after decades of neglect.

Case in Point: Gilbert Stuart Middle School. Gilbert Stuart Middle School, in Providence’s West End, was recently identified as one of the lowest performing schools in the state. Students, on their way to the buses, walk under scaffolding to be protected from potential falling bricks or stones from the façade. Gilbert Stuart is a major school for many youth in Providence, and in the hub of a highly used area. Within feet of Gilbert Stuart Middle School are the West End Community Center, the West End Recreation Center, the Socio-Economic Development Center for South East Asians, a Love 4 All Daycare Center, and the Knight Memorial Library. Truly, Gilbert Stuart is in the center of a “Children’s Zone” – yet the city doesn’t fund it like that. From decrepit sidewalks, poor landscaping, and a crumbling parking lot, Gilbert Stuart is a city service that is not invested in anywhere at the level it should be.

Gilbert Stuart was built in 1929, and has schooled (if not always educated) working class youth for generations. The dedication plaque on the interior of the building says, “This building is dedicated to the highest welfare of youth, and the promotion of worthy citizenship.” A friend of mine attended Gilbert Stuart years ago, and recalls trips to the UN, the Boston Ballet, and the Philharmonic. Where’s that type of investment in culture now? That said, the schools’ decline has been a long time coming. A colleague mentioned a mad time at the beginning of her career when a dog was thrown out the third floor window of Gilbert Stuart. Schools are not always fun places. From the poor classroom lighting at the former Bridgham Middle School to the condemned basement space at Mt. Pleasant, we have failed our children, youth, and staff. More than that, we’ve failed ourselves – our schools were built to be temples to democracy, not hubs of health risks and inequality.

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