GREAT BARRINGTON — High school students at Monument Mountain Regional High School will have an uphill start to the remainder of the academic year when they return from February break next month.
A proposed pilot program of a new drop-off system will be implemented on Monday, Feb. 24, in an attempt to ease morning traffic congestion and address safety concerns at the high school.
In what Peter Dillon, the district’s superintendent, calls his “boldest recommendation” of his 10-year tenure, the proposed changes will prohibit parents from dropping their kids off at the front of the building. Instead, parents will be asked to turn onto Monument Valley Road and drop their kids off in the parking lot of Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School. Students will then walk up an asphalt driveway to the entrance of the high school, according to the plan made by town officials and local law enforcement.
“We’ve had issues with drop-off at the high school for years, particularly morning drop-off, and cars getting out of there,” Dillon said.
Dillon outlined the proposed drop-off plan to members of the Berkshire Hills School Committee, saying that it is an idea that emerged from talks with the Great Barrington and Stockbridge police departments, the state’s Department of Transportation as well as state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.
A unanimous 8-0 vote to endorse the superintendent’s plan was made by the school committee at the Thursday, Jan. 23 meeting. Chairperson Stephen Bannon and committee member Sean Stephen were not in attendance at the meeting.
“The plan is to have parents drop off kids at the Muddy Brook parking lot by the greenhouse, for us to maintain that path very carefully, and to have students walk up that path,” Dillon said.
Currently, the morning drop-off routine of school buses and parents is assisted by the Great Barrington Police Department. In the afternoons, a police officer from Stockbridge Police Department is on duty at the high school’s driveway entrance, which merges onto Route 7. If an emergency occurs elsewhere in the surrounding area, police presence is usually lost for that morning or afternoon, said Dillon.
“I think there will be cheers from parents who don’t get stuck at the high school for 20 minutes for dropping their kid off in the morning, and jeers from kids who have to walk up the hill in the morning,” he said.
In a letter dated Jan. 17 to the school committee, Dillon wrote that the maintenance staff would ensure the uphill pathway is treated with sand and salt.
Students with mobility issues will still be allowed to be dropped off at the front door, as well as any other documented medical issues. Parents and students that arrive at 8:20 a.m. or later will be allowed to enter the regular entrance to the high school, due to school buses arriving at Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School. Dillon stated that students arriving or being dropped off late would be allowed to enter the regular entrance to the high school, but would probably not be allowed to go straight to the front door after that.
Daniel Weston, a member of the Berkshire Hills school committee, asked if the proposed drop-off pilot plan would lead to less police presence in the mornings.
“Our concern, I think, has been for the students pulling in and out of Monument, and not so much the parents. I may be mistaken, but this is for buses, not either for the students or parents,” Weston said. “I still want to make that entrance safer for students driving in and driving out. My fear is that we will see less police presence because they will say we are doing this instead.”
Dillon responded saying that a large number of parents are dropping their kids off in the morning, making for a very small area to become congested. With fewer cars coming into the school in the morning, it will be safer for all, he said.
“I think some of the thinking behind this, and why the police initially proposed this, was by reducing the number of cars that come in and out of the high school in the morning by more than half, it should be safer for everybody coming in in the morning,” Dillon said.
When asked what enforcement policy there would be for the implementation of the pilot program, Dillon said that he would personally sport an orange vest — alongside other school officials — on the first day back from February break.
Valerie Zantay, a Spanish teacher at Monument Mountain High School, told the board she would like to see a study done on the correlation of bad weather and students arriving to school late or not at all. On the flip side, an increase of school bus ridership would be “awesome,” she said.
“My fear is that in weather events, students will wait until 8:20 a.m. to arrive,” Zantay told this newspaper.
In the wake of the latest minor accident at the entrance of the high school last October, Dillon took a more proactive approach to the proposed pilot program, saying that something has to be done other than waiting for the next accident to happen.
“We’ll try and create a shift in behavior and see if it makes things better. If it makes things better, we’ll keep doing it. If it makes things worse or more complicated, or there’s tremendous uproar, then we won’t do it,” he said. “But I don’t think I’m comfortable, and I imagine I don’t think anyone on the School Committee is comfortable in just keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that by doing nothing, the situation is going to get better there.”