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Dispute Over Old Desks Divides Mass. Community

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When the oil baron Henry Huttleston Rogers built an elegant brick and stone high school in 1906 as a gift to his hometown of Fairhaven, Mass., he probably never expected it to become the focus of an emotional community debate nine decades later.

But an $18.4 million construction project to remodel the structure has pitted school officials against alumni in the seaside community near Boston.

At the center of the controversy is a plan to remove 102 wooden desks from Room 7, a stately mahogany-paneled room that is used as the 12th-grade homeroom and a study area.

School alumni argue that removing the desks would rip the heart out of their old school.

Educators--who hope to use the remodeled space for classes and special events--say the design just does not fit in with modern educational approaches.

"We are trying to incorporate more student-centered instruction and cooperative learning here, none of which lend themselves to an environment where 102 desks are nailed to the floor," said John Newburn, Fairhaven High School's principal. "I think the desks are an impediment to using the room effectively."

Many of the older alumni, who easily remember which of the 102 desks they once occupied, believe the stiff-backed desks arranged in neat long rows are symbolic of the discipline and high standards they associate with schools of the past.

Filled With Nostalgia

Over the past month, many Fairhaven residents have rallied against the renovation plan, and more than 2,000 have signed a petition to keep Room 7 intact.

The issue has become so wrenching that town leaders have decided to put it to a vote. A nonbinding referendum on the fate of Room 7 is in the works for later this year.

"I understand the new educational ideas, but because of the wonderful ambiance of the whole room, it should be preserved," said Linda Tunstall, a member of the alumni association's board of directors.

The school's benefactor designed the spacious classroom--which spans 67 by 22 feet--to inhibit students from dropping out, Ms. Tunstall explained. "The idea was that in this large room, they'd have a feeling of camaraderie and it would help them stay in school."

The alumni association has donated $300,000 over the years to refurbish the building. Its members estimate that renovating the room would cost more than $50,000, money they argue could be better spent on recreational facilities left out of the final plans.

Few residents have objected, however, to the school's other renovation plans, which include upgrading the electrical and communications systems, expanding the cafeteria, and converting the gymnasium into a media learning center.

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