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Like a phoenix, a community school's spirit soars

Posted by Marcia Dick  December 10, 2010 10:10 AM

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Danielle Dreilinger photos

The mural created by the East Somerville Community School students and parents with help from artist David Fichter.

The Cummings School is ordinary, if a bit squashed: Signs in four languages, a poster advertising Toys for Local Children, the strums of "Smoke on the Water." The gym's so small that "when you shoot the ball sometimes it hits the ceiling," said eighth-grader Marvins Gabriel, 14.

Thumbnail image for phoenix.jpgThe tiny, teal-painted cafeteria looks like a fish tank. But on its wall hang drawings of a phoenix, the symbol of renewal. Despite the name on the wall, this school isn't the Cummings. It's the west campus of the East Somerville Community School, which burst into flames three years ago yesterday [Dec. 9].

"I remember the old school was huge and really pretty, and we got a phone call from one of my brother's friends ... he said the school's on fire," said fifth-grader Meira Downie, 10.

However, with the Dec. 2 approval of a $30 million bond funding plan to rebuild the school, and the Dec. 6 unveiling of a vibrant phoenix mural, students and teachers are finally feeling like the smoke will soon clear.

The plan incorporates $10 million from Liberty Mutual and about $15 million from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, as well as $8 million from the city. Work is slated to start this month, with completion projected for the 2012-13 school year.

Meanwhile, there are kids to teach. Compounding the challenge, about half the ESCS classes are bilingual. The district's solution was to split the student body: grades 1-4 in the Edgerly school next to ESCS and upper in the Cummings across the McGrath Highway. Both housed various programs but were no longer fully used.

The kindergarten moved to the Capuano Early Childhood Center, home of the city's preschool. The fourth- through sixth-grade special ed class moved to the Argenziano school to have a full range of grades for mainstreaming.

"It was definitely hard," said eighth-grader Sarah Bissett, almost 14, an eighth-grader, who remembered the old lockers and kids of all ages walking by. Classmates are sad they won't  finish their elementary school careers at a rehabbed ESCS.

"Everyone was like a big family at East Somerville and everyone split up," said eighth-grader Jennifer Leone, 14. Now, "Our family's like everywhere."

They had, however, an easier time with the "divorce" than the teachers. "The kids are very resilient, very adaptable," said John Shea, an ESCS custodian of 14 years. "They adapted more quickly than the adults did."

Longtime fourth-grade teacher Linda Wiegenfeld missed her colleagues, who now grab lunch and catch up during professional development days. At first "we didn't have any materials, not even a pencil," she said. Every so often, "you'll think 'I'll bring in that book,' and you'll remember, 'I don't have that book anymore.'" She wasn't allowed to return to her fire-damaged classroom in a building she walked her students into when it opened in 1972.
The distance between the two main sites had some unseen consequences. "The older kids in the school would always be mentors," Downie said; there were daily homework help sessions. Now they don't have frequent contact. It's harder for older siblings to walk younger ones to school, and after-school activities at the Cummings have suffered from the lack of a late bus.

The neighborhood felt the hit as well. As the only school on that side of the highway, "the building was used every night and all through the weekend," said principal Holly Hatch: ESL classes, meetings, open gym hours. It had the only full-sized auditorium of the K?8 schools.

"It really is a community fixture," said parent Janine Lotti, who grew up in the neighborhood.

But "I think most families stuck with it," Lotti said, and teachers as well. 546 students were enrolled in the 2009-10 school year. It looks like a decrease, Hatch said, but the special ed class and kindergarten aren't included in the count.

"I have the children of a lot of the children I've had," said Wiegenfeld, who thought the school had a distinctive, caring spirit. "It's a quiet loyalty."

The divided student body has maintained a spirit of unity with activities like the spring field day, math nights, a faculty academic leadership group, and a school-wide winter concert, scheduled Dec. 21 this year. "We don't say the other school; we say the other campus," Wiegenfeld said.

But possibly the strongest glue of all has been paint.

The mural proposal went in before the fire, aiming to brighten a drab, impossibly long wall more suited to a prison than a school. When a Creative Schools grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council came through, it edged on literary irony. "We sort of went "Oh my God, how are we going to do this,'" Hatch said.

They did it by banding together, and working with architects to make sure the new building had room for the piece. The eighth grade studied the history of East Somerville. The fourth and seventh grades studied local immigration. Everyone sketched. Leone painted a car; Bissett, water. Parents came in to add their brushstrokes to the project.

Artist David Fichter pulled it all together into a giant panorama that spans eras and populations: Native Americans fishing, Alexander Graham Bell, an Edsel assembly line, Paul Revere riding down a very anachronistic Broadway. It's crowned by a phoenix whose tail is made of 60 flags representing student and staff home countries. A crowd of young people surround the bird, their faces that of actual students.

"Part of what the mural has been is keeping the school alive," Hatch told the School Committee members at the Dec. 6 dedication. "Now it's in pieces but it's all going to come together and it's kind of like ... us."

In two or three years, Wiegenfeld plans to walk her class back into the new building, where "Smoke on the Water," and a giant mural of a firebird, will be the only flames.

Click here to learn more about the rebuilding.

Contact Danielle at


Custodian John Shea straightens up after lunchtime at the makeshift school.

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