“Jaago” means “wake up” in Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu. It’s a call to the masses to fight for their rights, to make a difference.
JAAGO is also a nonprofit in Bangladesh that educates street children. In 2009, Korvi Rakshand launched his one-room, mud-floor free school in one of the biggest slums in Dhaka with 17 kids. His goal: to eliminate poverty through education. The children — from families of farmers, sweepers, beggars, domestics, brick breakers, and sex workers — learn everything from speaking English to basic hygiene, like brushing teeth. Ten years later, JAAGO educates 3,000 children in 12 schools across Bangladesh. And the students from that first batch are all going to college this year!
How is this relevant to Amherst? The people who run JAAGO and similar nonprofits would never dream of saying “no thank you” to funding for education. You cannot afford to do that in a Third World country. But here in our First World town of Amherst, some feel privileged enough to do so, because not all their criteria are met on a school proposal.
Yes, I know that was three years ago. But I’m bewildered that we are still dancing around a school project. It’s a fact that the Wildwood and Fort River school buildings are not conducive to learning, educationally and environmentally. We have a School Committee that we elected to represent us. We have a Superintendent behind whom most of us stand. After hours and hours of deliberation, they have put together a proposal taking into account all needs, opinions, and budgetary constraints. Not a small feat to accomplish in a town so highly educated and opinionated.
Superintendent Mike Morris has proposed a Statement of Interest to help get us back into the MSBA pipeline for state funding — if the MSBA is even willing to accept us. The proposal isn’t about “playing God,” and deciding who gets to go first: Fort River or Wildwood. It’s for a K-5 or K-6 building to house students from both schools, because they are equally dilapidated.
Even better for those wanting to maintain small schools, the proposal envisions the 600 students in the future building divided into separate learning cohorts — the Spanish immersion program and the English one — that will functionally be two separate schools. The School Committee voted unanimously for it. We as a community have to make sure our Town Council votes in favor, too.
Sounds simple, right? Not so in Amherst, where many — some of whom are empty-nesters, have kids in private schools, or at Crocker Farm (the school with the windows and walls right now) — put up roadblocks every step of the way.
At the March 18 Town Council meeting, we heard statement after statement from teachers and parents on how dire the need is to replace Fort River and Wildwood schools. We listened to heartbreaking stories of roof leaks and students dreading going to school when it rains, rodents, kids unable to concentrate due to the open-classroom design, and about the astronomical maintenance costs of running these buildings. We would not tolerate these conditions in our homes, so why let these factors continue harming the educational experiences of our youngest and most
vulnerable community members?
I speak from the privileged position of a Crocker Farm parent. But we have also heard from parents whose children are in Wildwood and Fort River, not to mention our dedicated educators. Let their voices be the louder ones. Why not let the experts make the decisions?
“Not so!” some say. “Not so fast…maybe another plan…maybe another study…maybe we can do a renovation on the cheap, without a grant from the MSBA….” What do I really hear? “Go slow…Go slow…” Or as Dr. King so powerfully put it: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’… This ‘Wait’… almost always mean[s] ‘Never’… More and more I feel that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have people of good will….” (Letter From a Birmingham Jail)
In the end, our town’s school building problems are simultaneously its true social justice problems. Quality air, green energy, sound learning environments, affordable preschool for all, ADA compliance, investment in our young and their future. Our town is facing a critical situation. Our kids and educators need us to get that funding to build a school to replace Fort River and Wildwood.
I urge our Town Councilors to vote unanimously for this broad proposal on Monday. The details can be debated later. This is a wake-up call, Amherst. Jaago!
Farah Ameen is a Bangladeshi-American writer and editor.