LETTER: Councilor Believes New Developments Not Causing School Overcrowding

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I want to preface this article by saying that there will always be more work to do when it comes to improving our schools and class sizes in general. I don’t believe there is a definite line we could ever reach where I would say there is no more work to be done. I think that is simply true as we are part of an ever-evolving and changing world.  With that being said, the standards I use to measure our class sizes and school population are both comparative and historic.

I write this because almost every action taken by the Town and/or School Committee comes back to a widely held belief that our schools are overcrowded and class sizes are too high. Part of that belief is that development in town is the main cause of this. I disagree with both of these statements. Recent development in town has not contributed in a significant way to our school system nor is our student population or class size too high.

School Population/Development:

Each month the school committee updates the current enrollment on their website. The below link shows that as of January of this year (2017) the total enrollment in Watertown is 2,656 students. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0By4uoVXRE8TQdVhTQzVzZG0xNEU/view

According to the NESDEC figures in the link below, the overall number of kids we have today is most comparable to the number of kids we had in the 2011-2012 school year (2,659). https://docs.google.com/a/watertown.k12.ma.us/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=d2F0ZXJ0b3duLmsxMi5tYS51c3x3cHN8Z3g6NGIzMGZmMTU1MjA2OTMyYg

Now why is that significant? From around the 2011-2012 school year to present day here is a short list of the major developments that have come into town:

• Repton Condos (2009) – 179 Units

• Charlesbank Residences (2012) – 44 Units

• Mews (2013) – 206 Units

• Riverbend (2013) – 170 Units

• Alta/Bell (2014) – 155 Units

• 192 Pleasant (2014) – 7 Units

In total units, not counting smaller projects, or some bigger projects like Howard/Bacon, and not counting residential renovations, that adds up to 761 units.

Watertown added more than 761 units from about 2011 to present day and the total school population went down 3 students.

This is not to say that none of these developments have school-aged children, they do. In fact, at last count, these had a total of 30 school-aged children (spread out over about 68 elementary school classes plus all Middle and all High School classes). The numbers suggest that they have not added to the population in any significant way.

Arsenal Street over the coming years will be adding almost double this amount of units and another 99 units were recently approved for Pleasant Street. I am not saying that I do not expect some school-aged children in these developments. However, if the past is any indication, the vast majority of the time, due to the price of these units and the fact that a majority of the units are studios and one-bedrooms, families with children are not as likely as some may think.

In fact, the Facilities Master Plan (page 9) projects that in 2025/2026 the student population (not including pre-K or out of district students) will be 2553 students. Today’s pre-K and out of district combine to about 193 students. For arguments sake, let’s say the total in 2025/2026 will be, in total, about 2750 students. That is only about 100 more than we have today, added over an almost 10 year timeline.

In sum, recent development has not contributed to our overall school population in any significant way and based on the projections it is likely future development of this type does not either.

Class Size Elementary Schools:

According to the school’s January figures mentioned above, the average class size in the Cunniff School is just over 18 students (283/15 classes), Hosmer School is just over 17 students (555/31 classes) and Lowell is also just over 18 students per class (411/22 classes).  The middle and high school class sizes are not broken down.

Today Watertown’s total overall elementary class size is just over 18 students per class.

Watertown Public Schools Budget Hearing Presentation dated 03/30/15 shows FY15 average class sizes for the Cunniff just over 20 students (312/15 classes), Hosmer School is just over 19 students (539/28 classes) and Lowell (381/21 classes) at just over 18 students.

In FY15 overall elementary class size was just over 19 students per class. It is important to note here that the Cunniff School’s fifth grade is unusually big. Last year, as fourth graders, there was a huge problem splitting the students into only 2 classes and this forced staff into constant maneuvering to make the year work. There was a very justified response by the community to the larger class size and space issues. This year they divided the kids into 3 classes to help remedy the situation.

The WPS’s have added almost 60 net new positions over the past 3 fiscal years. The addition of staff, including teachers, likely contributed to the reduction in class size.


Based on the available data I must conclude the following:

• overall our schools are not, and have not, experienced an abrupt or significant increase in population since major development came online (2011)

• our class sizes are going down

• development in Watertown has not contributed to an overall increase in the schools

HOWEVER, very important to note here is that this does not mean there is not space and/or infrastructure issues in Watertown Schools. The Facilities Master Plan Study shows that updating the schools’ infrastructure (the definition of which includes things like potential additions, windows, roof replacements, furniture, new technology, security, etc.) is the vast majority of proposed renovations. Also, the fact is that the way we educate our children in 2017 is very different from the way we educated children even 10 years ago (when I graduated from Watertown High School) and results in space related problems and needs.

Watertown needs new classrooms, offices, infrastructure, etc., that are more conducive to 21st Century teaching methods, will incorporate innovation and provide the resources necessary to make Watertown Schools some of the best in the state.

Overall our school issues are not the result of student population or class size or development. The Steering Committee for the Facilities Master Plan Study has a big task in addressing how to move forward in renovating our schools and I think our community should support them with the knowledge of the issues that our schools face.


Ken Woodland
District D Town Councilor

12 thoughts on “LETTER: Councilor Believes New Developments Not Causing School Overcrowding

  1. Kenny,
    This is a very interesting analysis of the impact of new construction on WPS & classroom size, thank you for writing with such clarity & sharing with everyone.

    This table of class size broken out by state from National Center for Educational Statistics indicates that we’re doing pretty well in class size even for MA

    But as you wrote, space is a different issue than class size & still needs to be addressed

  2. Maybe the better question to adress is why this process is taking so long. You can have all the committee meetings you want but it has not lead to action. Talk all you want about the needs, but in the end, no action is taken, just more meetings. Developers can take derelict sites and convert them from idea stage to apartments in about 2 years…..maybe we should them to move deisgns forward. This conversation is getting stale because nothing is done

  3. I had assumed that additional students was one of the drivers for the school remodeling/additions/etc. But after reading this article I must ask if we have any data on how using different size class rooms, different teaching techniques such as project based teaching will impact our students? Hopefully someone has such data so that it can be communicated and not cause any further delays to updating our schools.
    I do support providing funds to update our schools, but it is even more important for the community to have expectations regarding how these changes will impact our students development, and how such would be achieved. So, if anyone has reliable data on the proposed changes and their impacts please communicate the data to the residents.

  4. Thank you for this Kenny. I’m a better person for knowing you, and appreciate your service to our town. What this data doesn’t and can’t measure is the laws of supply and demand mixed in with cause and effect. Can we, as community, this time, try and plan, and not predict? Are we getting transient tenants without kids partially because of our schools? I think there is an element of that. If the schools were improved might we get more people with family’s looking to Watertown? I think that as well. The Kraft’s didn’t build Gillette stadium hoping it would be half full. We shouldn’t improve the schools based on, and hoping for, continued low numbers. We’re preparing for best case scenarios not worst using this logic. Surely some of the people choosing to live here would be different if the schools were improved. What would the outcome be if the real estate market changes and 2 or 3 of these complexes change from rentals to condo? Some have been constructed with conversion in mind with thicker walls and high ceilings. We know this to be true. Wouldn’t that indeed bring a less transient dynamic to the demand side?
    We obviously got rid of one or two to many schools and missed opportunities to use available land in the past. Let’s not make the same mistakes that have already been made for us. We need to plan for maximum enrollment and hope we have a little extra classroom space rather than prepare for the least and hope for the best. In finance the rule of thumb is you can’t always predict. (Look no further than last November) But you can prepare. Predictions can and are sometimes wrong and we aren’t prepared for a spike in enrollment the way we are doing things now.
    There is no doubt there is some correlation to the tenants we’re getting and the state of the schools, to what extent is the question. It would be far more prudent to be overly prepared for more enrollments from these places when the schools are fixed. As always thank you for your service to our town

  5. Because of the types of housing being built in Watertown, I did not think it would impact the schools much. Most of the units, whether rented or owned, are quite expensive, as well as being studios or one-bedrooms, not conducive to families. I live in a two-family house and many, if not most, of the homes in my neighborhood have been converted to condos. Usually a young couple will buy a condo, continue living there after having a child, then sell and move on after they’re had their second child because they feel it isn’t enough room to raise two children. The same will likely be true with the new residents constructed in Watertown.

    • I live in a condo and have a child., In a two family. Myneighbors kids recently graduated from WHS and raised 4 kids in the exact same unit. As the price of housing goes up families do learn to make smaller spaces work. This is not the case for all as what you state is also true. My point is that the schools can’t add more classrooms and we’ve lost some enrichment/SPED areas. Any relatively small increase in one grade or more has larger impacts than these impacts may have had in the past .

  6. So, is this the excuse not to renovate our schools? We have so many rentals and small condos that there is no value in thinking forward. Shouldn’t we want a town where people want to move to and stay?

  7. The class sizes has gone down this past year due to a combination of lower enrollment and using our enrichment areas as classrooms(good work by Principles). There is no more rooms available for classrooms in all the Elementary schools. Currently there is a classroom at the Cunniff which has been split down the middle to be made into 2 classrooms(very small). The year before, there was a class that was nomadic and moved from space to space for most of the week. They also have art on a cart as the room was taken, the Lowell has had their Teachers lounge and Computer room made into classrooms and the Hosmer uses a stage as a teaching space. There are many fluctuations in class sizes due to many factors and Councilor Woodland is correct that not many children, relative to the number of units, go to our schools. That said, we only need a small group to push the scale into overcrowding yet again. There are many factors for our rises in certain grades and I believe it is a combination of development/houses turning over from older to younger families/single families to two families. All this and of course our churn rate for students, possibly due to high rental numbers in town, expensive costs and churn in our Schools lately. We currently have our Elementary schools at capacity for classrooms and many Special Education spaces we have, are now less than optimal, though not for lack of large efforts to make things work by the Principles, Admin, and teachers. Our School system is currently using central registration to try to keep class sizes from getting to high due to our space issues. Let us also remember that class sizes just last year were at 24 for many classes(in some cases more). With a our new interim Superintendent Dr Bracket, our schools are moving in the right direction and hopefully will reach their true potential in the next couple years with a new Superintendent. With a better foundation, our schools may have a better reputation and more families will come. We need to look at our long term strategy as we are already at capacity. Let us not forget, that the schools goal has been to keep the class sizes small. They have done a great job trying to keep class size down though I would add, at the expense of losing much needed rooms for enrichment and SPED spaces. 21st century or 20th century learning, either way, we need more room for learning and we need to plan for some growth(no matter where it comes from).

  8. Hi everyone, I think Ken is crystal clear that “yes” we do need improved infrastructure to meet instructional standards and the educational needs of our students. Town leaders, WPS administrators, teachers, and other staff know this to be true. We also know we must communicate clearly on why we need improved infrastructure and how tax dollars will be used to improve the quality and relevancy of education. This year, enrollment has not risen in ways we worried it might. That’s good news for our students and staff. Still, improved infrastructure is essential and WPS administrators, School Committee, town leaders are very much focusing these issues.

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