Community Effort Launched to Improve Springfield’s Gerena School

The Gerena school in Springfield’s North End serves pre-kindergartners through fifth graders in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But the building itself is not just a school — it’s also home to a large underground tunnel that allows local residents to cross Interstate 91 and the railroad tracks on a daily basis. Age and recent storms have caused the facility to decay – it’s now leaking and full of mold – so a community effort has been launched to raise money for repairs.

Gerena is a magnet school – public but with specialized curricula. It brings together Montessori teaching methods and the arts. About 700 students enroll each year, and the vast majority are Spanish-speaking. Gerena is struggling to improve its MCAS scores, which ranked in the bottom ten percent of Massachusetts public schools last year. But it’s not just teaching or achievement at Gerena that’s troubling the local community – it’s also the 40-year-old building itself. There’s water trickling down some classroom walls and ceilings, and many ventilators are coated with filth and mildew.

“The school, the building, they need to fix it. I’m worried because the mold, the water is going through the walls and it’s not safe for the kids here.”

Rosa Serrano has a son, a kindergartner at Gerena. Even at an after-school event in a visibly clean hallway, she worries about whether the air quality affects her son’s breathing, because he has asthma.

“He loves this school. He don’t want to miss school. The kids, they don’t have to get sick. Sometimes the air, I can smell it now, I can feel it, that the school got mold.”

And one story below the classrooms is what’s known as “the tunnel.” It looks like a subway tunnel, but it’s well-lit, and safe, with guards at either end. The school sits beside Interstate-91 and railroad tracks, so the roughly 100-yard tunnel was constructed for pedestrians. Families use it to bring children to school, but also to walk between neighborhoods, and over to Baystate Medical Center. Burst pipes and water main breaks in 1994 and 2000 flooded the tunnel and school building, and puddles and mold continue to be problems. Alin Ferrer is 11 years old and walking through the tunnel with her grandmother. She says they only use it when there’s no water accumulating on the floor.

“I take my sister with me cause she’s terrified because we’re underground. You can see it seeping down through the walls and it was really, really noticeable. And it really doesn’t look well. It doesn’t really look pretty.”

The city has taken notice. In the past decade it’s spent close to $4 million cleaning out the air system, replacing water pipes, painting classrooms and replacing the roof. That’s according to Patrick Sullivan, director of Springfield’s Parks and Buildings Department.

“We’ve dealt with a lot of the behind-the-scenes, people don’t visually see where we’ve put new pumps and motors in to take the groundwater away from the building. It’s understandable that people get frustrated but a lot of work has been done.”

Sullivan says the city regularly tests the air quality and that it’s now safe, and he says the school nurse has noticed a decrease in student asthma attacks in the past year, but the school hasn’t released specific data on that. And since the school committee and the mayor have appropriated $2 million the coming year to repair the tunnel, more work will be done in the warmer months.

“Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll have a rubberized flooring in the atrium area of the tunnel. We’re working with Mass Highway to help stop water coming in from the highway areas. We want to do an indoor playground unit for the school and that would be off the atrium area, and then just painting and some more pump and motor repairs and more work to the ventilation system of the school.”

The city is applying for funds from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, and awaits response. In the mean time, the North End Organizing Network, or NEON, has launched a community effort – “Al Rescate de la Escuela Gerena” – To the Rescue of Gerena School. Jasmin Torrejon is a community organizer with NEON and says that because it’s difficult to fundraise in a poor neighborhood, there’s an effort to involve local businesses. The WGBY public television station took notice, and has renovated a room in the school, donating televisions, computers and PBS-themed video games and books.

“One of the reasons why it’s so important to invest right now in the Gerena School is because we’ve been told building a new school is 10 years away and so we can’t let these conditions stay like this for 10 years and the community deserves to have access to their community center, a safe passageway that is not flooded every time it rains, where the air quality is healthy and all these other things are improved.”

The North End Organizing Network is holding regular informational meetings for local residents to learn how they may help with school improvements. And state legislators say they’re also searching for funds.