School officials do not yet have a concrete plan for dealing with overcrowded classrooms in Watertown next fall, but modular classrooms could be part of the solution. Meanwhile, parents continue to worry about large class sizes or classes being taught in unorthodox spaces.
Monday night, the School Committee’s Building and Grounds Subcommittee discussed the short and long term solutions to the space problem in Watertown’s schools at the meeting at the Watertown High School Library.
Superintendent Jean Fitzgerald said, looking at the current projections, the schools would be OK, and classes in the three elementary schools would not be overcrowded. The biggest class would be one at Hosmer Elementary School with 24 students.
If more students show up in large numbers, School Officials are looking at leasing a modular classroom or classrooms to handle growing enrollment at one or more of the elementary schools.
There are a number of options to deal with the space, including adding modules, turning schools from K-5 to housing whole grade levels at one school, so that one school would have kindergarten and first grade, another second and third and so on. Fitzgerald said she does not like this model because students have to transition to new schools too many times, and would mean more busing of students.
Another option would be to send new students to whichever school has the most space, even if it is across town. This strategy could also mean more buses, Fitzgerald said.
School Committee member Eileen Hsu-Balzer said she wants to make sure the district does not hurt the education program in Watertown’s schools. Therefore the money will have to come from the Town Council and Town Manager.
“Wed don’t want to cannibalize the education program (to solve the space problem),” Hsu-Balzer said.
Parent David Stokes said parents are confused about the space problem and he said they need to know what will happen if there is a shortage of space and how programs will be impacted.
“What is not going to happen because we are in this situation?,” Stokes said. “They need to be reassured and given the reality. They need to know this is not going to happen.”
Coming Up With a Plan
Parents asked when they would know when the plan would be in place.
School officials will have to go to the Town Council for money if modulars are requested. Hsu-Balzer said school officials will need the support of parents to get the money.
Fitzgerald said she and her team are gathering information to come up with a concrete plan. The first puzzle piece will come on April 15, when officials receive the prices for their bid to get one to four modular classrooms.
The other key factor, Fitzgerald said, is figuring out how many students will be showing up in the fall. The district hired a new demographic consultant to project how many students the district can expect this fall and in future years.
Previous projects did not include the new apartment buildings in town, Fitzgerald said, but the new one will. She hopes to hire the firm in May and get information by June.
One step school officials have already taken to try to get a grip on how many new students are in town, and where they are coming from, is figuring out what complex matches the address. She noted that some people put down the name of the complex – i.e. Repton Place or Bell Watertown – and that some put the address. Some complexes right next to each other will come up on different streets.
An option to create more space at Cunniff School, the smallest elementary and one with the biggest space problem, would be to add a second story on the back wing of the building, said former School Committee member Mike Shepard. School Committee member and architect Elizabeth Yusem said that could be explored but warned parents that the rooms on the first floor of the wing could not be used during construction, so portable rooms would need to be added.
The Subcommittee meeting drew about 40 people, many concerned parents who want to know how the district will avoid having large classes and emergency measures such as breaking off a group of kids to create a class in a former art or music room.
Cunniff parent Lisa Hayward has children in first grade and in fourth grade, which has had the overcrowding problems after several new students moved into the school in the middle of the school year. While she credited the teachers and staff for doing an excellent job, Hayward said the solutions were made under crisis conditions.
“The best plans do not come from crises,” Hayward said. “In my opinion the fourth graders are surviving. There are other classes on the cusp of crisis – just one or two students away.”
A number of parents said they have not felt an urgency from the School Committee and School Administration to fix the problem in the short term. Some had hoped it would be fixed before the end of this school year.
Hsu-Balzer tried to reassure the parents that the School Committee and officials also want to solve the problem.
“I don’t know how it morphed into the schools do not want more space,” Hsu-Balzer said.
She added later, “We are all on the same page – we need more space.”
Parents asked Fitzgerald what her ideal maximum class size would be and she said between 18 and 22. She noted, however, that the Massachusetts School Building Authority (the group that awards money for school projects) does not consider a classroom crowded until it is over 24 students.
Parent Chris Lowry said she thinks the discussion about space is much more complicated than just where to put kids. She also would like to see class size guidelines.
“If 18 to 22 is what we want to see, we should say 24 is a cap,” Lowry said. “It can’t just be a discussion about what everything costs, it has got to be about what we want educationally for kids.”