Catchings Owens Community Suite gets an upgrade
By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
Walk into the Catchings Owens Community Suite at Glenfield Middle School, and you’ll see new chairs and tables, and a fresh coat of paint. The floors and ceiling have been replaced. There are new windows and upgraded bathrooms. TV monitors have been installed alongside furniture donated by the Glenfield School PTA.
It’s all part of a recently completed update to the suite, celebrated at a reopening ceremony Feb. 26 in a space that for four decades has served organizations including the Montclair Grass Roots camp program, the Montclair Parks and Recreation Department, senior organizations, civic groups and Glenfield students, according to the school district.
It first opened as part of the 1980s transition and renovation of Glenfield into a community school — one of several steps in the school’s evolution as Montclair’s magnet system developed to integrate students of all races regardless of neighborhood.
The facility is named after the Rev. Maynard Catchings and Richard L. Owens Sr. Catchings was a Congregational minister and a former Board of Education president who served in the early 1970s, and was a member of the Montclair Town Commission from 1976 to 1980. Owens was the founder of the Glenfield Senior Citizen Club, a founding member of the Glenfield Task Force (which promotes the use of the school and Glenfield Park for community programs) and a member of the board of Montclair Grass Roots.
The suite was originally named the Glenfield School Community Suite, but renamed for the pair in 2001, according to Owens’ obituary.
“Over the decades, building a community center has been the topic of frequent discussions,” Montclair schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said during the reopening ceremony on Feb. 26. “There were a number of proposals, talks with the Board [of Education] and community partners, the writing of a grant, the adoption of a community school concept and how here we are and the people in the audience are a true testament of the story that was and how far we’ve come.”
In 1896, the eight-room Maple Avenue School was constructed, and in 1916 the school was renamed Glenfield, according to a history of the event shared at the reopening ceremony. By 1933, a junior school division was added.
As Montclair’s neighborhood schools continued to grow, so did the racial separations between them. By 1961, a junior high program at Glenfield was 90% Black, the history recounts. Eventually, a mandate from the state commissioner of education ordered desegregation of Montclair’s schools. Several initiatives were attempted, but in 1976, Montclair began its magnet program, with Glenfield as a gifted and talented program with an emphasis on performing arts, according to the history.
At the same time community members in the area of the school were organizing, and seeking a community program outside of school hours. Local groups convinced the Essex County Parks Commission to upgrade the adjacent 25-acre Glenfield Park with sports and event facilities, the history recounts.
In 1984, the Montclair school district voted to approve the receipt of more than $940,000 in federal funds for the renovation of Glenfield School, and to implement community education and community school concepts, as the district described in an announcement of the reopening on its site. Those funds came through a grant written by district employee Stephanie Robinson, who traveled to Washington, D.C., with longtime civil leader Wally Choice (namesake of the community center in Glenfield Park) to promote the community school concept.
Robinson was among the attendees of the February reopening ceremony, as were three of the then-Board of Education members who’d voted to accept the funds and to adopt definitions for a community school and community education — Ron Burton, Carole Willis and Joyce Michealson.
As part of the 1980s renovation, the suite was established inside the school.
According to a copy of the minutes of a June 25, 1984, board resolution, community education is “a philosophy based on the belief that learning is a lifelong process which takes place in the classroom and embraces all life experiences such as work, social activities, recreation and civic settings.”
The general goals of community education are “to improve existing programs, to provide equal learning opportunities for all ages, to obtain maximum utilization of physical and financial community resources and to involve citizens in local problem-solving and decision-making processes,” the resolution states.
“These types of projects are what community is all about and a demonstration of connection and working together at its finest,” Ponds said at the recent ceremony.
Many of the speakers during the ceremony shared anecdotes about growing up while using the suite, and described how the suite has been a part of the community.
Robert Kelley, the Montclair public schools building and grounds supervisor, said he attended a basketball after-school program hosted at the community suite during winters and summers. He said it kept him out of trouble growing up.
Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings described a program based out of the suite that paired students with Glenfield Park custodians and taught them how to clean and take care of the park. He said it meant a lot to him, when he joined at the age of 13, and made him appreciate Glenfield Park and his community.
“We stand on the shoulders of the people who built this town. We all have a connection. … We all come together and we all fight together,” Cummings said.
Councilman Robert Russo said his career in the public sector began at the community suite, when he participated in social and political groups held at the space. He said he met with organizations there when he was mayor in 2000.
Ponds told Montclair Local in an email the school district’s buildings and grounds staff had done “an outstanding job in making the space fresh and welcoming for all those who will be using it in the future.”
He said he’d made a commitment to equitable treatment of school buildings, and while he was very excited about the recent expansion of the field at Watchung School and renovation of an adjacent playground there, “I am also equally excited about the shared space at Glenfield.”
State Sen. Nia Gill (D-34) said the community suite was created to provide a safe place for students and the community to come together. She said that the suite is for the community and members don’t need to be part of the school system to use it.
“In this space we talk about big ideas and we organize so Montclair can become a better community,” Gill said.