Jepson Congas Open

by Allan Appel | September 6, 2007 7:45 AM | | Comments (4)

IMG_2477.JPGBenjamin Jepson, who introduced the music curriculum to the New Haven Public Schools about 100 years ago, would have been delighted with the rhythmic, get-ready-to-shake it up-and-learn beat of the conga drums that then accompanied the dancing entry of students into the building named in his honor.

With the mayor and superintendent of schools, and the principal, and all the parents looking excitedly on, a conga line of students Wednesday opened the rebuilt Benjamin Jepson Interdistrict Magnet School and marked the formal start of the 2007 school year in New Haven.

As with almost every school year since the initiation of the Citywide School Construction Program in 1998, no year seems to begin in New Haven without the opening of a new or renovated building. The hopeful start of the 2007 school year was marked on a beautiful, sunny day in Fair Haven Heights with the grand opening of the program’s 26th completed project.

Three more school projects are in the midst of construction, five are in the design stage, and four are in planning. It’s the largest school construction/renovation program in the state.

IMG_2474.JPGThird-grader Willow Giannotti-Garlinghouse probably didn’t expect it when she woke up early for the first day of school, then was pressed into agreeable service at the last moment to cut the ceremonial yellow ribbon.

IMG_2476.JPGWith Principal Peggey Pelley (pictured) showing some good moves and Sue Weisselberg, the coordinator of the school construction program, most appropriately helping to hold open the doors, the kids danced their way into a building that came in on budget, at $40 million. They began to explore the state-of-the-art computer rooms, science lab, media center, an inventive auditorium and student eatery space combined, called the “cafetorium.”

As beautiful and soaring as the building itself was, what struck parents and visitors most was also Claude Watt’s favorite feature of the project, the setting. Watt (pictured below), the project manager for Gilbane Construction, which supervised the building of Jepson for the Board of Education (BOE), said “the setting here is really remarkable. It’s an abandoned brownstone quarry, where the architect set the building into the landscape so it can rise but also blend in.”

IMG_2463.JPGHere, Watt, who has collaborated on at least six projects with NHPS and Sue Weisselberg, was soliciting the advice of two other consultants, two users of the space: on the right third-grader Marco Penuela and second-grader Julian Reyes. Julian was relaxing in one of the architect’s ovals outside the spillover space from the kindergarten and first-grade classroom.

Watt said that the school is among the greenest in the whole NHPS system, and not only in its materials. It has a white roof reflecting the sunlight. The building captures the maximum of natural light. An oil-backed gas HVAC system, by switching on and off between sources at the peak demand times, saves energy and money. Jepson is a school that is only beginning to utilize the green grounds and sections of the forested acreage behind the school, left untouched by the architect.

Weisselberg said what’s most remarkable about this project is the site. With 14 acres it is the largest in the NHPS system. “Usually what we’re dealing with are the problems of too small a site.”

The plaza and expanse of grass behind the cafetorium struck Watt as ideal places not only for play areas and athletic fields, yet to be put in — but also for performance. Or even for the tables in the adjacent cafetorium, which are on wheels, to be brought out for school lunch al fresco.

What did Julian Reyes think of the architecture? “It’s shady and comfortable,” he said, and obviously a good place for a pre-festivity snooze. Marco Penuela offered that he liked the brick. Both boys had attended Jepson in its previous buildings. They pronounced the current building really nice.

IMG_2469.JPGJepson, which has attracted some 170 of the 450 student population to come in from the suburbs, not only has the rural feel in the midst of a city. It also has learning taking places in mixed-aged classrooms. Seventh-grader Mishele Rodriguez, standing here with her parents in front of the school’s soaring stairwell, is particularly looking forward to doing real experiments, she said, in the new science labs.

She’s likely also pleased that Jepson joins the Barnard School participating in the Growing Connection, a program supporting the kids’ growing produce in their own classrooms. Developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Jepson’s has received the support of Claire Criscuolo in this effort, of Claire’s Cornucopia restaurant. Mishele and the other students will be planting their own vegetables for the first time this year. It’s September! They’d better hurry up.

IMG_2470.JPGDuring the formal ceremonies before the kids conga-ed in, Mayor John DeStefano underlined the kinds of improvements Jepson represented: “The first version of the school on Quinnipiac Avenue had 20,000 square feet, one acre; here there are 14 acres, the largest school site in the city.” He said there was no doubt in his mind that the kids deserved it, and not only because Jepson students showed, he said, double digit improvements in eight of ten measured areas in the recent CMT tests. “It is always right,” he said, “to invest in our kids.” Then he asked all New Haven taxpayers to raise their hands. “You paid for this,” he said, “and I thank you.”

Superintendent of School. Reginald Mayo called each child a V.I.P. “And a V.I.P.,” he said, “says thank you not only to the mayor, who is the brains and initiator of this and all the school projects. But you say thank you by using this facility, which is now your foundation, to study even harder, and raise those CMT scores even more.”

IMG_2467.JPGThus far, the city has spent more than $1.5 billion on either construction or renovation of the city’s school, and the 15-year long effort is scheduled to finish in 2012. On Thursday, at the Citywide School Building Committee, which the mayor chairs, a draft of the revised master plan for the balance of the program will be discussed. Were there any highlights or direction changes that the mayor might reveal?

“With 26 finished, three being built, and nine in planning or design, that’s 39 schools,” he said. “Well, there’s not that much left to be done. Some decisions regarding Davis and Mauro need to be made, whether to renovate some buildings or start from scratch. And, of course, there’s the University of New Haven science and engineering high school that’s very exciting. I think the news is,” said the mayor, “that it’s unlikely we will have to locate any new sites from this point to the end.”

Finding the remarkable 14-acre site for the new Jepson made the project take a little longer, eight years, than called for, said Weisselberg. (The quarry site had been owned by Gateway Terminals, which was using it as a vehicle holding and repair location; the city bought the site from Gateway). But with sunlight brushing off the tops of maples on pines on both the Lexington and Russell Street margins of the school property, everyone at the gathering agreed it had been well worth it. Principal Pelley was even surmising what kinds of hiking trails might ultimately be put in to link the adjacent forest area with the school building.

IMG_2479.JPGMr. Jepson himself — whose plaque in the corner of the busy main office was largely, if understandably, being ignored by parents checking in on last minute registration details — waited patiently for re-hanging.

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Posted by: king james v | September 6, 2007 1:44 PM

hey those tens of millions of dollars spent on the physical walls, floors and windows at "new" jepson will most definitely make the students superior in every way to students in the suburbs who don't have a new facility. ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,... sorry, seriously though ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,.. are we all this stupid? no really, we're idiots right? the bicks, wires and walls DO NOT make for a beter student. we already had buildings with no leaks, good heating and ventilaation and nice playgrounds. this mulitbillion dollar "improvement" scam has been a disgusting example of how and why taxdollars are blown on junk. it's the humans, not the buildings you stupid, stupid people.
slap some bars on the windows, call them "training centers" and skip the middleman.
by my count this is the third sign of the aocolypse. please forward my mail to northern idaho, i'll be digging my shelter.

Posted by: Jonathan | September 7, 2007 7:32 PM

If the 1.5 billion, so far, makes a better student we can get a really good idea what New Haveners are getting for the money. is the State of Connecticut Department of Education's website where publicly accessible information is available to look at the gains or losses made by every new or rebuilt school in the district - every district throughout the state.

King James is right. People make the difference, not buildings. We have an excellent example of what's possible with school's like the Amistad Academy. Fundamental changes in the culture of public schooling are needed. Many times, it is more important who you're cousin is than what you're qualifications and how effective you are.

It is quite well reputed that BOE is a dumping ground for City patronage. Leaders are often pick and promoted not on the basis of efficacy but how long your family has been in New Haven or how well connected you are.

The school construction program is the culmination of a utopian idealogy originated in the Yale Child Study Center. (Oh, by the way, Yale doesn't have a school of education or a teacher training program.) Most utopian ideologies fail to deliver on their promises (e.g. communism). It is pretty clear that the press releases from the BOE will increase in number and scope. Why? Rescue this legacy before it is demonstrated to be only the flattery of leaders among themselves. Teach the kids. That's all we want. Get results like Amistad.

Posted by: East Rockette | September 7, 2007 10:44 PM

Reginald Mayo called each child a V.I.P. "And a V.I.P.," he said, "says thank you not only to the mayor, who is the brains and initiator of this and all the school projects. But you say thank you by using this facility, which is now your foundation, to study even harder, and raise those CMT scores even more."

So, the building program is massive, overdue, and clearly something of a legacy project for the people involved. But I don't think kids need to say "thank you" for something that is their natural right: a clean, safe, basic and useful school building. And they don't need to say "thank you" by spending endless classroom hours studying to pass some stupid bean-counting test. What about just learning to love learning, and forming a vibrant, talented community? Would that be thanks enough for the Mayor and the Superintendent? Or are they only interested in things you can measure?

Plus: " Jepson students showed, he said, double digit improvements in eight of ten measured areas in the recent CMT tests. " their previous crappy buildings. So clearly it's not about the environment, but the teachers and their students teaching to the test and working their butts off, respectively.

That said, the new building is a radical improvement on the old in many ways. It's a much healthier, cleaner, and friendlier space, and these kids fully deserve the new furnishings and equipment that comes with the new building. It will be interesting to see how it ages (watching the cleaning staff painstakingly wiping scuff marks off the light-coloured lino after the first day of school, I had to wonder what rocket scientist made that design decision) but I think the kids will treat the space with respect.

The site is spectacular. Still, the architects missed some great opportunities to integrate the building with the outdoors. The "plaza and expanse of grass behind the cafetorium" admired by the project manager is currently a barren, unwelcoming and inaccessible spot. Good luck wheeling those cafe tables outside through the single door. The area could be a fabulous natural auditorium shaded by a pergola, say, where students could eat their lunch, or have outdoor classes, and performances could take place, but it hasn't been constructed that way. There are exactly two benches for kids to sit on, off to one side, and the crucial central space is covered with bark mulch and low, scrubby shrubs. Maybe it's a place-holder for some future design? We can hope. Watch this space.

Posted by: Jonathan | September 8, 2007 9:51 PM

Great point E Rock. No one should deny these kids nice buildings. It would certainly be a shame, though, if the majority of these buildings ended up being managed by outside education companies because the BOE failed in their central mission to educate.

Like it or not, quantification of student performance is something that's not going away. If fact, my own suspicion is that NCLB's outcome measure'(i.e. the 'test') was meant as a way to trim waste in public education. The jobs and influence of Leaders often take on a life of their own - becoming an end in themselves. Someone (and I don't know who) has finally decided that this should not be, and devised a way to take politics out of education.

Simply put, educational leaders must now prove that they are educating kids, and not simply feeding self serving press releases to the local media. (That's a cost saving right there.) No more cult of personalities.

As for a vibrant community, no argument there. Let's just make sure the individuals with the community have a choice to leave if they want to and aren't held back because they didn't come from competitive school. Good grades and good scores aren't a meal ticket for life, but they can help open doors to Ivy league schools.

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