Grades May Shift to Different Schools to Relieve Overcrowded Classes

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Watertown High School Sign

The grades served by each school in Watertown schools could change significantly in an effort to relieve overcrowded classrooms, Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald told the Town Council Tuesday night.

Watertown School officials got their request to apply for state money to rebuild or renovate Watertown High School approved by the Town Council Tuesday night. The new high school building would also be used for other grades, resulting in fewer students at the middle school and the three elementary schools.

The town’s elementary schools, particularly the Cunniff, have become overcrowded, but Fitzgerald said the high school was identified as the building in greatest need of replacement, according to a consultant’s study a few years ago. She has a plan that to use the new school to help other schools.

“If we are able to renovate the high school, what we will be able to do is have the high school be a (grade) 8-12 school, our middle school will be (grades) 5, 6 and 7, and the elementary schools would be K-4,” Fitzgerald said. “I think this is the best idea. With one building would be able to deal with the needs of all schools.”

For the plan to work, the district will need to get money from the state to help pay for the work at the high school. The Council voted to allow Fitzgerald to submit the Statement of Interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) (see the detailed application here).

If the MSBA approves the project, the town will have to come up with the remainder of the cost (slightly over half). School Committee member Elizabeth Yusem said school officials will be meeting with residents in preparation.

“We wil have a dialogue with the community,” Yusem said. “It will require the entire community to come together to make this happen.”

This will be the third year in a row that Watertown has applied for funding. One difference this year, Fitzgerald said, is that the district can add two conditions to the application: prevention of severe overcrowding and prevent overcrowding from expected enrollment increases.

The School District will hire a consultant to project enrollment, including students from the new apartment complexes being built in Watertown, Fitzgerald said. Previous projections did not include those buildings.

“This is the same firm that Newton used,” Fitzgerald said. “We want more information as we go along”

The high school was built in 1929, and two wings were added in the 1950s. In 1979 another addition closed in the courtyard area and in 2004 the cafeteria was added and the roof was replaced. It cannot fit all the programs expected in a modern high school.

An accreditation team from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges toured the high school this week and Fitzgerald said she was given a preview of some of the areas they had concerns about, and she said the high school building may be given a “Warning” status.

Fitzgerald is hopeful the third time might be the charm.

“It was the same thing with the Middle School accelerated repairs,” Fitzgerald said. “It took two times before we were successful.”

Whether or not Watertown High School is in need of repair, Fitzgerald said there may be schools in other communities more in need.

The MSBA will make its decision near the end of the year, Fitzgerald said.

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