The new Somerville High School

On May 19, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joe Beckman

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

In 1924, Upton Sinclair wrote a book on schools called The Goslings. He wrote, “The purpose of this book is to show you how the ‘invisible government’ of Big Business which controls the rest of America has taken over the charge of your children.”

In March, the Somerville Board of Aldermen unanimously approved a bond issue for a school most likely to challenge Sinclair’s critique.

As currently budgeted, the new Somerville High School will cost $256,000,000, of which the city is, as Sinclair might put it, “on the hook” for $132,019,397 – not a small chunk of change. As a Somerville elder, the city allows me to defer all property taxes until I die or move from my home. So I can address the school’s cost issues, as Sinclair might have seen, free of personal financial involvement.

I am still very cautious about a school that, at $250,000 per seat, produces costs nearly two and a half times those of the most expensive school ever built in Massachusetts. But, with its planned and approved innovations, I can begin to see a rosy future.

Those innovations include the groundbreaking Powderhouse Studios, which last year received an international award from the XQ Foundation for an offsite educational laboratory for over 100 students to transform secondary education.

That transformation is consistent with Sinclair’s view that schools should work for kids, not just the budget masters, and that our children merit more than goslings – the children of geese. XQ’s view was confirmed by none other than President Obama, over lunch with the Mayor and Superintendent, recognizing Somerville’s deep innovation.

Because of that innovation, the new High School can be a wise investment.

The Powderhouse Studios model exploits the former Powderhouse School building as a laboratory school, to develop and test a wide range of innovations for up to 200 kids, as well as a source of affordable housing and community. It’s educational design is not unlike the new FabLab, in the High Schools’ former auto shop, which already produces serious innovations and is the focus of nationally acclaimed prizes earned by students.

The FabLab team includes several of the same team members as Powderhouse Studios – from Sprout & Co., incubators, and work-study, pre-professional education, and workspace partners. The FabLab and the Powderhouse models represent a makerspace view of how to invent, create, learn, and teach teachers and students, parents, adults and others in the community.

In other words, it is a laboratory with which students learn from each other, from teachers, and from others, how to invent, explore ideas, and do research, as well as how to think. And from all of these sources and their contributions we can pilot, test, and later adapt those innovations, in both the new High School and with and among college and school partners.

FabLab and Powderhouse are, in fact, the next wave of education that Sinclair called for nearly a century ago. And if they are anywhere near what Sinclair anticipated, they will attract students, teachers, grad students, and college partners. This kind of learning laboratory should also engage incubators, ranging from Greentown Labs, to Canopy, to the Bow Center, and other innovations in Kendall Square.

Given the cost of the High School, the city is undertaking exceptional risk. Yet the risk of a more traditional school for an increasingly less traditional economy might be higher.

We can see – as Sinclair anticipated – how exploitative college pricing undermines a traditional degree. More expensive does not always mean better. And in education particularly, price has little to do with value.

For the new High School, the challenge will be both educational and entrepreneurial. Powderhouse Studios and FabLab will develop and test new ways to address educational needs.

The challenge will be – as the Superintendent seems to recognize quite well – to make the Powderhouse model work and then to adapt its best approaches to the High School itself. And for that new high school to influence, impact, engage, and attract students, teachers, and others.

We have, in fact and in cash investment, become the Northeast’s (New England’s and New York’s) secondary school laboratory through that XQ award. We now face the challenge of living up to that standard.

In viewing that challenge, it’s wise to look back at critics like Upton Sinclair. He stressed the weaknesses of segregating kids by age rather than interest, channeling teachers by subject rather than inspiring collaboration by applying those subjects, and enforcing a calendar invented for farmers from an agricultural age in what was then an industrial economy.

Even in this post-industrial economy, some of those features will change very slowly. Yet some features could change dramatically, like new technologies at our incubators, or self-driving cars on our city streets.

Somerville is no stranger to educational innovation. For decades, it has been home to YouthBuild USA, Jobs for the Future, and a national Early College High Schools network. And Powerhouse Studios will substantially increase the depth of college and workforce partnerships.

Once the Studios start, parts of it – like FabLab already has – can adapt to the existing building, schedule and set of parent, teacher, and student expectations. The magic of that new building, between Tufts and MIT, with plenty of tech and plenty of open space for creative teaching, could and should be a foundation for transforming the bridges between schools, higher education and the careers of tomorrow.

And with a laboratory like Powderhouse to test and demonstrate innovations in a safe workspace with transparent participation by colleges and new kinds of incubators, the new Somerville High School could set a new standard for what all High Schools should become.

Nearly a century ago, Upton Sinclair described colleges as “The Goose Step,” wherein students are drilled until they kick high and follow the leader – “not a public service, but an instrument of special privilege.”

A year later, in 1924 his critique of secondary education in The Goslings was even more strident, quoting the then Superintendent of New York schools: “I do not know any school system in the United States which is run for the benefit of the children. They are all run for the benefit of the gang.”

Building a new school and exploring new foundations for a new century, Somerville can benefit a whole community rather than the gang that Sinclair warned against.


3 Responses to “The new Somerville High School”

  1. PeterH says:

    A wonderful piece of educational writing, and one of the best this
    newspaper has had in years. So thank you Joe Beckmann for your
    insight into Somerville today, and for your vision to the future. And
    for those of you who don’t know Joe – and live in Union Sq – go
    search him out and find him. He’s got lots of good stuff to say.

  2. Matt says:

    Great information Joe,

    While I am not there yet on a rosy picture afterall the city is spending over a quarter of a BILLION dollars in a high school (before any cost over-runs) and essentially has a blank check from tax payers in the form of the override for as long as it takes to pay for it that was voted on last year.

    Having lived in the city going on 15 years, I appreciate all the improvements I have seen, but I think this is more than a bit over the top.

  3. JPHM says:

    I am a Somerville homeowner and I 100% support this new High School…even if it means me paying more real estate taxes.

    This is exactly what we should be investing in. The current High School is an old mess and needs replacing. I am happy to invest on the future of Somerville’s children, and I don’t have kids!

    From a purely selfish point of view, I can’t see it hurting home prices either.

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