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After a ‘town hall meeting’ at the Hamilton Middle School on March 1, voters in the Hamilton School District should still be troubled and confused by the issues that the school board almost certainly will place on the ballot in June.

The Ravalli Republic, reporting on the meeting, explained part of the plan simply enough: “The middle school would house fifth through eighth graders.”

The matter is actually far more complex. By the plan being considered by the HSD3 leadership (meaning the superintendent, principals, and board), the fifth grade would be moved from the Daly School campus to the Middle School. Fifth and sixth grades would be assigned to the main building there, while seventh and eight grades would be placed in the second building, often referred to as ‘the pod’ (for a reason no one seems to know). This reorganization plan is an egregious error in educational judgment.

Although I have been a university professor for most of my career, I was happiest as a teacher during the 10 years I taught fifth grade. It’s a golden year in children’s education, when they turn 11 years old.

One of my Hamilton grandsons was a fifth-grader at Daly last year — a glad year for him, in the classroom certainly, but also on the playing fields, where every day he and his friends were running and passing for long touchdowns. One should never underestimate the importance of play (recess) in the joyful, healthy school day of children.

My grandson is a sixth-grader now, just as happy and successful in his studies as the rest of his classmates. Sixth grade recess, of course, is quite different, because at the middle school, the concrete and asphalt recreation space, (sometimes humorously called ‘the jail yard’ by the administration) is deeply inferior to the playgrounds at the Daly campus.

Sixth-graders have much in common with fifth-graders. They are still in early adolescence, and are beginning to learn with separate teachers for mathematics, science, and English. They also are acquiring new learning skills.

But then a great divide opens up. Seventh and eighth grade are commonly (not always) the most difficult, stressful of all school years — not, of course, because of the curriculum or their teachers, but because of the strong surge of development into adolescence.

The HSD3 school leadership declines to acknowledge that there are serious problems with the Middle School buildings. In his Power Point presentation Mr. Korst said “the building tested in the summer of 2015; safe and sound structure well surpassed expectations.” This glossed over the negatives.

Granted, the building entered from Fifth St., constructed in 1929, remains a classic school building. However, ‘the pod,’ built in the 70s, is a truly bad building for education. The narrow windows are sealed. Most of the classrooms have no windows. The interior is rather like a warehouse, or perhaps a bunker, with many large rooms.

It ought be a concern to parents that seventh and eighth grade, in the stressful-enough years for adolescents, might be consigned to this dismal building. Students could spend several hours a day in rooms that have little or no natural light or ventilation with fresh air.

This hulking, hideous building (the ‘pod’) might be the worst school building in the Bitterroot Valley. The best plan for it would be edge-to-edge demolition, clearing the area along Sixth St., for a recreation space.

Indeed, the Hamilton School District office has an album of computer generated images showing what new buildings and recreation areas might look like — at both the middle school and at the Daly campus. (These are renderings by Paradigm V2 Architects PC, in Missoula.)

Although I am not standing for election to the school board, I have attended every school board and board committee meeting since January. What the superintendent, the principals, and the trustees have not considered is a new idea I will suggest here.

The plan to move fifth grade to the middle school campus is going in the wrong direction. Instead, the sixth grade should be should be moved over to the vast 13-acre Daly campus. A new, carefully designed two-story structure could be constructed there, to be shared by the fifth and sixth grades. (Also, and no less important to HSD3 families and the larger Hamilton community, a new school building should be built at the Daly campus for kindergarten and first grade.)

Seventh and eighth grades should remain at the middle school campus, sharing the classic building. The ‘pod’ must come down; and jack-hammers must break up the crude concrete and asphalt yards. In its place might be long turf field; also, of course, a space with basketball hoops; and a landscaped area with trees and grass, where students can hang out with friends.

The next regular board meeting is Tuesday, March 14, at 6:30 p.m., at the Hamilton Middle School auditorium. This is a crucial meeting, just as important for the public to observe as last week’s ‘town hall’ forum. Because if the trustees discuss and then commit to bad planning decisions, school district residents should vote ‘no’ to the bond issue, tax levy, and sale-of-school property issues on the June ballot.

–Frank Laurence,  Hamilton

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