Mark Hayward's City Matters: Beech Street School has no walls — literally
I've often stood on a crowded school playground at the beginning of a school day, closed my eyes and imagined a flock of seagulls on a beach. With beaks blazing, they squawk out territorial claims, assert rights to the closest mollusk or declare possession of a shapely she-gull.
They cry, they caw, they do anything to be as loud as they can. (Kind of like the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, but younger.)
Eventually, the school bell rings, the kids file inside, teachers close the door, the classroom grows quiet, and learning begins.
That's not the case at Beech Street School, at least when it comes to closing the door and the room growing quiet.
For most of the kids at Beech Street - except those taught in trailers - there are no doors. In fact, classroom walls are a jumble of cabinets, bookshelves and anything about 5 feet or so tall that can be pressed into service.
Lined up against each other, these objects divide classes from one another.
Most of the makeshift walls are about 4 feet short of the ceiling. So once students and teachers start talking, the seagull-like cacophony grows. Hardly an environment for effective education.
With a student count of 602 last year, Beech Street is about the largest elementary school in the district, behind only two others. Its student population is the poorest, judged by the portion of kids who get lunch for free or a reduced price.
And it's pretty easy to spot when you drive through the city; just drive down Beech Street until you see four trailers, which house six classrooms. (Last spring, the decking on one collapsed, slightly injuring several students.)
For years, the school board has talked about the interior walls at schools. Shortly after 2003, when the city committed $105 million to rehabilitate and expand schools (but not build walls), school board members said it was time to close up the open-concept classrooms across the district.
Money was tight, and a list was drawn up. You can guess where Beech Street landed.
Interior walls were built at Highland Goffe's Falls and Parker-Varney, the latter to the tune of $3 million.
Other publicly funded construction projects went forward in the city - a $5.5 million sports complex at Memorial High School, a $25 million baseball stadium, a $43 million municipal complex and, most recently, a $2.5 million fire station.
Meanwhile, Manchester schools continue their little racket. The city receives more in adequacy grants than any other community in the state. The so-called Claremont money amounted to $56 million two years ago and is designed to even out disparities in education spending across the Granite State.
But look at elementary school buildings - the one aspect of education that doesn't get a lot of federal and state money for support - and Manchester has its own little Claremont going on.
Schools like Smyth Road School, which school board members nickname 'the country club,' have lots of playground space, quiet classrooms and walls that reach to the ceiling.
But if you're a student at Beech Street School, you end up in a math class where you can hear a spelling lesson going on while you're trying to multiply two numbers.
'Beech Street is next on the list. It'll be done when we find the money,' said Superintendent Tom Brennan.
He said officials delayed the work because there was talk about building a new school in the center city a few years ago. That idea got dropped in favor of redistricting, further pushing off any action, Brennan said.
(I'm not sure I get the connection about how redistricting would prevent the need for walls.)
Longtime school board member Arthur Beaudry explains it differently: 'the squeaky wheel got the grease.' Parents at Highland-Goffe's Falls and Parker Varney wanted walls, so they got them.
Beech Street has a new principal, Pat Snow, who said walls are one of her top three priorities. Beaudry said the school board Building and Sites Committee also has the walls as a priority. But he warned it will cost millions.
As for the chances the classrooms will ever be quiet? It's hard for politicians to support walls in a center-city school when they're laying off teachers.
And if some extra money were found? Always possible, as long as there's not a city department in need of new digs or a team somewhere looking to call Manchester home.
Mark Hayward has been a staff writer with the New Hampshire Union Leader for more than 15 years.