Students, Officials Celebrate Opening of Colegrove Park School
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The gymnasium at Colegrove Park Elementary School filled with a thunderous "Thank you" as more than 300 children voiced their appreciation of their new school.
The moment came at the bidding of Jack McCarthy, executive director of Massachusetts School Building Authority, as a way to recognize a community that had voted to raise taxes to provide them with a new school.
"It's because you deserve it, you deserve a 21st century education, you deserve to be competitive not just with the rest of the commonwealth but the rest of the world," he said.
The MSBA had partnered with the city on the nearly $30 million renovation, providing some $23 million to fund 80 percent of eligible costs. McCarthy said he was impressed with the results and the investment being made in the city's education system.
"The most excited person I saw when I was going through here was one of your teachers. I walked in and she just said, 'I love this, I love this, I love this,'" he said. "If she's typical of the excitement of your teachers here, then this is an unbelievable institution."
Monday marked the official opening of Colegrove with speakers and a ribbon cutting although staff and students moved in on Jan. 2, leaving overcrowded Sullivan School behind, but taking the important things with them.
"I started out as a kindergartner at Sullivan," said Principal Shelley Fachini. "Mr. Sullivan had to carry me to class because I was so reluctant to go ... so I carried Mr. Sullivan here with me and he's hanging in the office because I will not go anywhere without him and he is the reason I stand here today."
The ceremony in the gym included a continuous slideshow behind the speakers showing images of the old Conte Middle School compared to its renovation as Colegrove. Student Ryan Goodell led the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance and selected children joined the officials on stage to cut a yellow ribbon that retiring Superintendent James Montepare cut into pieces for each participant.
There were sighs of relief along with the cheers on Monday because the renovation of the century-old school building had been a long and difficult road. First built as Drury High School (the third version of that institution), it was transformed into Conte Middle School in the mid-1970s when a new Drury was built on South Church Street. The population pressure that prompted those changes had fallen off 30 years later, and Conte was closed in 2009 as a result of financial strictures and declining population.
The school project began in 2010 with a feasibility study of how to handle the placement of Grades 6 and 7 into the city's three elementary schools. The decision was made to reuse the old Drury once again, only this time as an elementary school.
That proposal was met with a great deal of opposition: parents were unhappy over the closure of Sullivan School, there were perceived dangers in sending small children to a downtown school, there was building's age and different ideas of reuse, and the expense.
The project was put on hold for a time for more review by the consultants and the MSBA; when it again moved forward, opponents forced a ballot vote on the funding, which passed by a narrow 137 votes in 2013.
Rumors and delays dogged the project through nearly two years of construction, and the building opened four months later than planned. The contractor is still completing punchlist items after the school day has ended. While it has been tracking on or below budget since the beginning, the full accounting won't be finalized for months to come.
"It tested the resolve of this administration, tested the resolve of this district," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, in thanking the many people and organizations involved in the renovation. "Our School Committee, our School Building Committee, our residents rallied to make this school a reality."
McCarthy described the mayor as having "stick-to-itiveness" in keeping the project on track.
"This was a tough project, I think we all know that, you really learn a lot about a district and the people in the district when you have a project that's tough," he said. "Your mayor is the real deal."
State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, also spoke, with Cariddi saying the school looked incredible and brought back memories, and Downing that nothing could describe the results better than "seeing the stands filled with future leaders of our communities."
"We are just grateful to be able to end up with such a beautiful project," said Montepare. "This is a special building project because saving this school is to me saving the seat of education in the city of North Adams. This was Nathan Drury throwing $3,000 on the table in 1846 and building a school here."
The renovation uncovered numerous historical elements of the building and the one that preceded it, all retained as part of its new life as Colegrove.
"It is just such a wonderful mix of history with jumbotron technology," said Montepare, describing the MSBA as the "Nathan Drurys of the day."
Fachini recalled how she had left the city but always found her way back.
"My message to all of my children here, and you are all my children, is you don't need to leave North Adams to become what you want to become," said Fachini, holding up a piece of the yellow ribbon. "I have roots that are very deep here and I will stay here as long as you will have me and I am blessed to be holding this today."