Watertown’s current school buildings don’t have to be torn down to make room for the all of Watertown’s students, but rather can be reconfigured and have some additions. However, parents and residents at Wednesday’s Schools Master Planning Community Forum worried whether they will be able to handle the growing enrollments.
The forum was led by architects from SMMA, a Cambridge firm hired to put together the master plan, which will be a “50,000 foot view” of the school facilities and needs. Eventually the plan will help guide Watertown to renovating or rebuilding the schools so they can provide an education fit for the 21st Century.
Michael van Hamel of SMMA said he used guides for size of classroom as laid out by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which oversees school projects and provides some money for districts to build or renovate schools. In Watertown’s case the state would cover almost half the cost if the projects are approved by the MSBA.
Looking at the enrollment projections and the sizes of the schools, van Hamel said that Cunniff Elementary School has enough space for the projected number of students in 10 years time, while Lowell and Hosmer elementary schools are a bit too small. The enrollment would actually be lower in a decade, according to the enrollment projections being used by the schools.
These numbers puzzled many at the meeting, especially parents of children attending Cunniff, where they had some very large classes, including one grade that had to break off some students and hold classes in what was an art and music room.
“I live on the Westside and it seems shocking to meet that the numbers are going down,” said Lynn Walder. “We have single family homes being replace by two-family homes with three bedrooms. They are being bought by families with children.”
There are also the recently built apartment buildings on and near Pleasant Street, other residents said. Town Councilor Vincent Piccirilli said that of the 600, or so, units built on the Westside, they have only produced 17 students. Overall, the trend is not for spiking enrollment, added Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we had declining population. It is increasing now but not dramatically,” Magoon said, adding that the projection is for the schools to grow by 1 percent a year for the next 10 years, or by about 250 overall, K-12.
Magoon said that one of the reasons Cunniff seems to be bursting at the seams is the increasing number of special programs at the school.
“It is being driven by when we add new programs we are shoehorning them into spaces not designed to be classroom spaces,” Magoon said.
Recent Watertown High School grad Joe Lowry asked if the planning for the schools would produce buildings with a buffer in case the enrollment grew more than the projections. van Hamel said School officials will be monitoring growth and the master plan can be updated to adjust to changes in enrollment.
New Types of Schools
The master plan not only designs schools to house more students, but does so in a way to educate them using modern techniques. These often need a different type of space, van Hamel said.
Just as schools have moved away from old ways of teaching, such as teachers lecturing to students in rows of desks, school buildings have changed from building wings with rooms coming off of hallways, van Hamel said.
“We like to get rid of hallways,” van Hamel said. “Hallways are wasted space.”
Today, schools have more team collaboration and project-based learning, things that Watertown has already embraced. However, the buildings do not lend themselves to that style of learning.
SMMA showed an animation showing how the non-load bearing walls of a hallway can be taken down, and the same wing can be transformed into rooms of different sizes and spaces, with a large community area where students and teachers can come together. Some schools even have clear garage doors than can roll up and allow spaces to be joined together.
Expanding Current Schools
Watertown’s schools have a lot of potential so, for instance, the high school may not have to be torn down but rather rebuilt inside and perhaps added to in some areas.
This would please the members of the Watertown Historical Commission, which sent a letter to the School Committee urging them to renovate the schools and keep the historic structures, which date back almost a century in the case of the high school.
Looking at floor plans which showed the rooms that are too small in red, too large in blue and just right in grey, van Hamel said the elementary schools are in pretty good shape, with a few modifications.
“When we got to the middle school and high school, it changed a bit. There was more red,” van Hamel said. “What we learned is Watertown High School and Watertown Middle School have a lot of spaces that are underutilized.”
Some places where additions could help increase the capacity of the school include adding a story to one wing at Cunniff, renovating the little used theater space at Hosmer and adding a gym or auditorium at Lowell, farther down the hill, van Hamel said.
The high school and middle school both have outdoor spaces in the middle of the school that are seldom used because much of the school year is during inclement months. Creating an atrium or expanding into these areas could be a possibility, and may lead to having lessons outdoors when weather improves.
The high school also has potential of renovating the seldom-used auto shop and vocational area and turning it into modern classroom spaces, van Hamel said.
SMMA officials would not commit to any cost figures for these sorts of renovations. Joel Seely, an architect from SMMA, said it depends on the size of the school and the type of renovation.
The community forum was the second of three planned this summer. The final one will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. in the Watertown High School Auditorium, 50 Columbia St.