Mount Abe students share their views on old building; renovation bond vote looms

BRISTOL — It’s lunchtime at Mount Abraham Union High School and the large cafeteria is abuzz with students eating, chatting, laughing and catching a few fun moments with friends before the next bell rings and they troop off to classes.
More than anything, it’s loud. Deafeningly so. But it’s a lively loud, with so many students happy to be out of class, get some food, sit with buddies and take a break.
During the first lunch period the middle schoolers share their thoughts on how the heating, air conditioning, ventilation system leaves them feeling.
“It’s pretty bad because there’s not really good ventilation, and it gets really hot in here. It makes it hard to focus,” said 8th-grader Elliot Nezin of Lincoln.
Riley Wells, an 8th-grader from Bristol, observed: “I actually did notice when it was really hot, I was in math class and I couldn’t really do anything. Then when it got cooler, I was getting everything done, one of the first people to. The heat really throws me when I’m trying to learn.”
Kaia Companion, Bristol 8th-grader adds: “It affects your learning because it can make you feel really drowsy. It can make you feel like you don’t want to learn anything. You just want to stay home and relax kind of thing.”
Many older students at other lunch periods said much the same thing.
According to Monkton 10th-grader Chloe Johnson: “There’s like no circulation of air through the building, and it just feels really gross, and it’s super hot, up to like 82 degrees. I remember one day at soccer practice we couldn’t go outside because it was 86 degrees outside but in the gym it was 70-something, so it really wasn’t much of a difference.”
Starksboro 11th-grader Elizabeth Siminitus shared a story about one classroom in particular: “Our French classroom is sort of located under a staircase. And there’s a tiny little window but not any air flow and in the early, very beginning of the school year and at the very end when it’s really hot out we’ve actually had to leave the classroom because it’s too hot to have class. The new wing actually has air conditioning, and we’ve had class sitting in the hallway of the new wing just to be able to focus.”
This year Mount Abe’s 664 students share one gym. So what’s that like if you’re a student athlete?
“It kind of affects the way I participate, mostly during basketball season. It’s pretty tough,” said Coby LaRose. Now in grade 9, he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a middle school basketball player.
“We have half a gym and then we share with the 7th-graders the other half of the gym. We only get half an hour in the gym, so it’s kind of not good.”
With 30 minutes in half a gym during an hour and a half of practice, LaRose said that the rest of practice “we went out in the hallways and ran up and down the hallways because we didn’t have room in the gym to do it.”
Ninth-grader Camilia Masse of New Haven describes the time in the hallways as an eighth-grade basketball player: “We would do lots of conditioning, running around, doing springs, doing workout stuff. We would talk about plays, but you couldn’t run through the play.” Even during the 30 minutes of gym time, Masse reported that “we couldn’t do certain things. We couldn’t do full-court scrimmaging because we only had half a gym.”
For high schoolers who play winter sports, practices can start as early as 6 a.m. or go as late as 10 p.m.
“Last year I was on JV (basketball), and JV kind of gets a rough practice schedule. We had like 20 or 15 6 a.m.’s. You have to wake up at five and that really impacts your sleep schedule and your home schedule. It’s also a bummer for my parents because they had to drive me, and that’s not a fun thing.”
Tenth-grader Emma Campbell from Starksboro described what it’s like to have practices at the other end of the day.
“Sometimes we have late practices, too. We had a couple 7:30 to 9 (p.m.), and that was difficult because you’d have homework to do afterwards. You could do some of it before. And that also affected your sleep schedule and homework schedule and such.”
Cora Funke, a Monkton 11th-grader, has a math class in the back class of a tandem classroom. To get in or out of her class, she has to walk through someone else’s.
“It is not good,” she said. “I have calculus, which is behind another classroom. So I have to walk right through the other classroom. If I have to get a drink or go to the bathroom or compost something, have to disrupt that entire class. And you have to do it twice (coming and going). It’s a significant issue.”
Chloe Johnson, and many other students, mentioned that the emergency shower in the chemistry room has no drain.
“In our chemistry room, there’s an emergency shower in case you get chemicals on you and you’re burning. And if you turn it on there’s no drain for the shower. So it will just leak down to the library and the server room.”
Monkton senior Aidan May and a number of science buffs described the chemistry and biology classrooms as possibly unsafe and definitely outdated. The pipes that used to carry gas for Bunsen burners are sealed off, the fume hoods are used for storage and the space has to be cleaned out before you can use the fume hood for an experiment.
“In one of the biology rooms, there used to be sinks on the desks but they covered those up with pieces of wood. And there’s holes in there, and people put garbage down into where the old sinks used to be.”
May also noted that because the chemistry classroom is set up for a lab (with groups clustered around lab tables), it doesn’t work well for lecture/discussion and if someone wants to start a lab but others are doing paperwork, all the paperwork has to be moved off the desk before the lab work can begin.
“I think we have great science teachers,” May said. “I think the whole program would really be improved from a new facility for our safety and for the improvement of learning.”
Several students talked about enjoying being in musicals and what a large performance space Mount Abe offers for students and for the community. But they giggled when they described frequent enough mishaps with the auditorium’s seating.
“I’ve witnessed at least twice where people have sat down on a chair and gone to stand up and the whole chair came with them. And the little desk things are broken off of some chairs. They’re just not great,” said 11th-grader Elizabeth Siminitus of Starksboro. Siminitus, who does the fall musical every year and is in the band, also noted that “the stage has a few problems where we’re not allowed to go barefoot on the stage because of splinters and safety issues.”
May noted that “every year a couple (of auditorium chairs) break for sure. Sometimes they’ll just tip over on people. I think my grandfather came to a play one year and his chair broke underneath him.”
Some students offered the opinion that things are just fine as they are.
“I don’t see the point of the renovation, really. Like we already have a library, and we have a town library so why would you put it at the front of the school for other people to use? I think that’s just a hassle,” said Bristol 9th-grader Hannah Marcum.
She continued: “I think people want the renovation because it’s kind of like an old school. And there’s some things that are like — well the ceilings they leak and they break and they have holes and there’s cracks in the floor and the locker rooms are really dirty.”
Marcum described a leak in the ceiling in her English class last year. Asked if that detracted from her learning, she said no:
“The leak in the ceiling was definitely like a distraction, but I wouldn’t say it was like a big difference for me.”
Starksboro student Will Martin said he thought the renovation plan was “excessive.”
“There’s no secret about it, this school is old. But I think the big thing is we work around a lot of things. There are some things I think should be changed. But there are also plenty of things that maybe they’re not what you would see in a Burlington high school or the Middlebury high school, but for a community as small as the five towns I think it works. I think we make it work. And I think we do a great job with that as a school.”
Nevertheless, for many the overall look and feel of the school doesn’t match the spirit and education that students find inside.
Said Aidan May: “The school doesn’t look especially welcoming, which is sad to me because we are a very welcoming school. From the outside it looks a little intimidating and utilitarian. I think we’ve tried to improve it and make the space bright and happy because that’s what kind of school we are. I just don’t think the school really reflects who our teachers are and what we can get from this school.”
But perhaps 11th-grader Joe Berg’s story takes the cake in demonstrating students’ determination to keep the focus on their studies whatever the built environment might or might not bring.
“I was in Spanish class and a snake came out from under the windowsill from the wall in the new wing,” Berg said. “So, yeah, from that I can only wonder what’s going on in the walls of the old wing. I feel like it kind of fits into the renovation piece because I don’t think we want snakes coming in and out of the walls.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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