As the College gears up for one of its largest construction projects in decades, the future of preschool Amherst Day School, affectionately known as the Little Red Schoolhouse, is in question. After College officials informed the Little Red Schoolhouse, located in the heart of the Social Quad, that it would have to close and vacate the premises by June 30, 2012, the Schoolhouse and members of the Amherst community have rallied together to petition the College about extending its future. Proposals range from simply finding the preschool program a new home, to physically moving the building to an alternate location on campus or in town.
Though there are currently no plans to demolish the schoolhouse, President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin explained that the building would not be fit for young children in the coming years due to construction. However, President Martin also stressed that the College took the relationship between the two institutions seriously, given their long history.
This history stretches back to 1937, when the Little Red Schoolhouse was built after then-College President Stanley King accepted a petition for a permanent preschool building. Designed by James Kellum Smith, Class of 1915, who was also the mastermind behind the Amherst War Memorial, the Mead Art Museum and the Boston Public Library, the Little Red Schoolhouse was funded by James Turner, Class of 1880, who insisted that the school should be built without regard to cost. His generosity also included an endowment of $400,000, which today provides about 30 percent of the Schoolhouse’s annual operating budget. The building was constructed to fit the needs of young children, with the interior entirely built to the scale of a toddler.
Today, the school serves around 20 children between the ages of three and five, with a staff of three teachers, a director and student volunteers. Though the schoolhouse was originally intended for the College faculty and staff, it also serves the community at large.
Proponents for saving the schoolhouse building have been petitioning the College to form a committee to work out a compromise between the two institutions as construction moves forward.
“We’ve met with a member of the administration and proposed that there be a study committee to look at the needs of the College for preschool education and the resources of the Little Red Schoolhouse and its staff, and to see where the common ground is,” said Carol Gray, whose husband drafted the petition. “The College hasn’t decided yet what they want to do with the building, but it’s hard to imagine them using it for anything but the preschool because everything is kid-size.”
Part of their plan is to request money from the town of Amherst’s Community Preservation Act Committee to preserve and move the building. The proposal stresses the importance of the physical environment to the preschool program, arguing that “the building itself is partly responsible for the success and excellence of the program itself.”
However, President Martin cautioned that while the College was aware of these efforts, the costs of moving a brick building “would seem to make it prohibitive,” ranging anywhere between $440,000 and $635,000.
Another point of discussion appears to be the nature of the Day School. Because it is only a half-day program, many College faculty and staff find it more convenient to send their children to other schools with longer hours, a point President Martin stressed would have to be addressed in future negotiations.
“The donor of the endowment that has supported the Little Red and Amherst Day School specified that the funds should support the childcare needs of Amherst College faculty and staff, and we hope Amherst Day School will be able to help meet those needs,” she said.
In this vein, Therese Ross, Director of Amherst Day School, stressed the willingness of the program to compromise and also pointed out the education value of the schoolhouse for Amherst students.
“It’s not us versus them. What we are focusing on is the best interests of education and for the kids,” she said. “I think it’s important to emphasize that we are beneficial to the College students on campus, to faculty and staff and to the larger community. For students who come from on campus and work here, it’s a connection to the real world. ‘I’m with these young children, I’m helping them, but it’s also a reality check that life isn’t just about my academic life on campus.’”
One of these students, Aubrie Campbell ’14, hoped that the two parties could come to an agreement that would benefit both, emphasizing the importance of early education to human development.
“I think a lot of the reasons so many of us are here is that we had a good early education,” she said. “It’s scientifically proven that that’s essential. For a place like Amherst that values education so much, I hope that they would value all types of education.”
Some students, including Timothy Clark ’12 and Mariah Servos ’14, who attended the Little Red as toddlers, have voiced their reluctance to see a historic, 75-year-old building demolished. However, President Martin was quick to assuage such fears, insisting that the College has actually made historic preservation a priority.
“In the recent past we have adopted the approach of adaptive reuse or rehab of our historic buildings, not to tear them down,” she said. “These would include Charles Pratt, Appleton, Webster, Athletics, frat dorms and Fayerweather. In fact, last year the College was honored with the prestigious Paul Tsongas award from Preservation Massachusetts for ‘Historic Stewardship.’ We will consider all reasonable options for the preservation of the Little Red Schoolhouse when we undertake East Campus planning.”
Nevertheless, students realized that given the cost and scale of the Science Center, preservation might not be possible. “If there’s a way to relocate it … it would be nice, if only for the kids there,” said Clark. “But I understand that it might not be practical, especially given the priority the College has given to the Science Center.”
For Gray, Campbell and others committed to the Little Red Schoolhouse, the school is a way for the College to give back to the community it belongs to.
“It’s great when colleges can be a real valued part of the community they live in,” said Gray. “Not just providing great education for students, but for colleges to see themselves as part of this village they’re in, and that they benefit from having a community that they’re interacting with and providing a service to.”