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Lawrence Harmon

What makes a great school?

The new Newton North is spectacular but such opulence isn’t needed for first-class education

Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis (above) is housed in a converted furniture store on Main Street, but its students manage to stage dramatic productions, play sports, and stay nourished, despite not having all the amenities that newNewton North High School boasts. Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis (above) is housed in a converted furniture store on Main Street, but its students manage to stage dramatic productions, play sports, and stay nourished, despite not having all the amenities that newNewton North High School boasts. (Sturgis Charter Public School)
By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / September 12, 2010

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HERE’S A folk adage you’re not likely to hear around the City of Newton as the school year gets underway: “Wherever there is too much, something is lacking.’’ That something is a down-to-earth sense of what is required to create a great school.

The new Newton North High School has no peers in these parts. And with a price tag of almost $200 million, that’s a good thing. The building is spectacular, as would be expected from the drawing boards of Graham Gund’s architectural firm. After its recent ribbon-cutting, students, parents, and staffers were mesmerized by such features as indoor and outdoor tracks, an electronic music lab, a greenhouse, tennis courts, a student cafe, and two theaters. Newton North boasts everything a kid might need to succeed, except a lack of pretension.

Is the new school a symbol of a city’s admirable emphasis on education or is it a reflection of the materialistic values of many Newtonites? An intellectual delight or Mammon High? That’s for someone with a deeper knowledge of Newton to answer. But no one should gaze upon this school and conclude that such opulence is needed to give students a first-class education.

Great teachers with a solid grasp of their subject matter and the ability to make the material come alive for students are the stuff of great schools. Add kids from affluent families and the job gets easier. But Newton educators have been turning out terrific students from various social classes for decades. They did it at the old, drafty Newton North High. Many of them could do it in mud huts if necessary. The quality of education in high-achieving Newton is unlikely to change by virtue of high ceilings, Olympic-size swimming pool, or perfect air conditioning. But there is real danger that the new school will give students an even greater sense of entitlement. And that’s no gift to the young.

At the Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, 400 students grapple with a rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum in a converted furniture store on Main Street. There is no theater, no gym, and no cafeteria. Yet students manage to stage dramatic productions, play sports, and stay nourished by taking advantage of local theaters, playing fields, and lunch counters. Newsweek recently ranked Sturgis, which requires four years of math, science, English, and history, as one of the top high schools in the nation.

“We don’t have the new Cadillac. We have the used Chevy,’’ said Eric Hieser, executive director of Sturgis. “But we have the Mercedes-Benz for curriculum.’’

Meanwhile, families are knocking down the door to get in. So Hieser is planning to open a second campus for 400 more students. He figures he can house them for the next 30 or so years in a “permanent modular’’ building at a cost of about $7.5 million.

Maybe the year-rounders on the Cape are a tad parsimonious. But new high schools are breaking ground or under construction in Norwood, Hampden-Wilbraham, Natick, and Plymouth in the $270 to $290 per square foot range. Newton North, meanwhile, came in at a total project cost of $482 per square foot.

“Newton precipitated a lot of soul searching,’’ said Katherine Craven, executive director of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which reimburses communities for a portion of their school construction costs. Newton garnered about $46 million from state taxpayers to build its new high school. And that vexed the spirit of state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Tim Cahill, who chairs the building authority.

In 2004, Cahill saved the authority from sinking under billions of dollars of liability by spearheading a plan to set aside 20 percent of the state’s sales tax for school building assistance. But he wasn’t about to put state taxpayers on the hook for local communities that can’t restrain themselves. If local taxpayers wanted to build and pay for royal academies for their kids, that was their business. But Cahill smartly pulled the plug on reimbursement for stadiums, pools, ice rinks, massive auditoriums, and the like.

Better still, Cahill and the building authority crafted a model schools program in 2008 that encouraged and rewarded communities for adapting and reusing the plans of recently completed high schools. That’s how Norwood, Natick, and other towns are managing to build nice schools at a fraction of the cost of Newton North.

Newton has draped its young in the best that money can buy. But there’s one adornment missing that could interfere with their educations for years to come — a sense of modesty.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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