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Expected Closing of Lowell’s Varnum School Like Family Splitting Apart

March 6, 2008

By Jennifer Amy Myers, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

Mar. 6–LOWELL — The staff of the Varnum Literacy and Arts Elementary School knew the end was near, but the loss still cuts to the bone of the tight-knit group.

“We are very, very sad, but we understand that in a time of terrible budget crunch, decisions need to be made,” said Principal Marianne Bond, who has led the school for two years.

“We are trying to keep it on the bright side for the kids, because whether they are here or in another school in Lowell, we are committed to giving them the best.”

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The School Committee is expected to approve Superintendent of Schools Karla Brooks Baehr’s recommendation to close

the 156-year-old, 200-student school at the end of the school year, a move she said will save the district more than $1 million annually, and begin to fill the anticipated $3 million budget gap the district is facing in the next school year at the March 19 meeting.

The Varnum was expected to close upon completion of the new Tsapatsaris School, but plans to build the elementary school have been delayed and are currently in the “planning” category with the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

Anna Ruiz said the school’s closing will hit her family hard. The single mother lives across the street from the school, making it easy for her to walk her 7-year-old daughter Arazelis Gomez to and from school each day.

“I don’t like

it, it is not the right thing to do,” Ruiz said about the plan to close the school.

“My daughter loves coming here, and I wanted my son to start kindergarten here next year. There are not a lot of schools in Lowell that are this good.”

Ruiz said she heard some of the kids in the neighborhood talking about starting a petition and holding fundraisers to keep the school open.

“It is just an awesome school,” she added. “It will be very hard for me and my family.”

Family. The word immediately spills off the tongue of every one of the staff members when asked to describe the school. It is almost always quickly followed by a crack in the voice and a pooling of tears in the eyes.

More than three-quarters of the students who attend the school live in poverty, but their families are adopted into the school family.

“A lot of our families have serious issues, but they knew they could come here for whatever help they needed,” said second-grade teacher Jane Rizzo. “The family always stepped up to get them what they needed.”

The Varnum family likely will be broken up in June. Most of the teachers and staff will land in other jobs in schools across the city. The students will be placed at the McAuliffe or Greenhalge schools.

The staff knows the building has problems: No cafeteria or gymnasium, no guarantee from day to day of the temperature in the classrooms, a leaky roof, teachers forced to share a bathroom with the students.

In their heads, they understand the School Department’s decision to retire the old girl, but in their hearts it is nearly impossible to let go.

“We just want to stay together,” said Karen Briere, the school clerk since the day the once-shuttered school re-opened 13 years ago. “It is going to be really hard for me to leave the family.”

The Varnum is a small school in a big city. Perched upon Christian Hill, the school is a cultural microcosm of the city itself, with a large percentage of students learning English for the first time within those brick walls, coming to Lowell from all over the world.

“If you were to see a schoolwide picture of all of us, you would see a tapestry of what Lowell has become over the years, a wide diverse population working together for the betterment of all of us,” Bond said.

The staff sees the school closing as another nail in the coffin of the concept of the small, neighborhood school, a fact they bemoan.

“In a larger school, you don’t have the closeness of the staff, so you can’t give the kids as much,” said third-grade teacher Diane MacLean, who has been at the school for 13 years. “In a school this size every teacher gets to know almost every student and watch them grow through the years. That is special.”

For the remainder of the year, the staff will help each other through the transition, while making sure that it is as easy as possible for the children, especially the third-graders who will be transferring to a new school for one year before moving on to middle school.

“That is a lot of change,” MacLean said.

“A lot of them are already adjusting to a new environment,” said second-grade teacher Beth Welch. “They are just coming to this country, just learning this school and now they have to learn another school.”

“It’s emotional,” said Bond, her voice cracking. “We love it here, but now it is about making sure that everybody is OK and helping everybody move forward.

The future is bright and the staff is working together through this transition.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sun, Lowell, Mass.

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