School Administrators: Expansion at Middle School a Must
Students' learning could be adversely affected by large class sizes and cramped rooms.
School Committee members heard a clear request from administrators, teachers and parents Wednesday night: expand some of the district's middle and elementary schools or else the quality of students' education could be in jeopardy.
The committee met with a jam-packed room Wednesday night to outline space needs and options for Newton Public Schools. The three-hour meeting addressed the district's growing enrollment and argument for more classrooms and expanded facilities.
"We've neglected the buildings and the schools are chopped up all over the system," said School Committee Vice Chairwoman Reenie Murphy. "If we need the space, I think we ought to consider the investment."
Last week, Superintendent David Fleishman presented an enrollment report that showed a kindergarten class with 898 students—the highest it has been in almost 20 years, Fleishman said.
In the next couple of years, that class could grow to 1,000 students or more, putting significant strain on the facilities and resources at the four public middle schools, specifically F.A. Day Middle School.
Strained space at F.A. Day
Several plans to expand F.A. Day Middle School have been presented to the committee, three of which involve new construction.
The three construction options range in price from $3.478 million to $3.77 million and involve combinations of building up and out. Some options in the plans include a new main entrance, relocating the school's main office and expanding the cafeteria.
An alternative, $1.35 million option involves several renovations and conversions of current spaces in the middle school, including transforming the library and a weight room into four separate classrooms.
Chief of Operations Michael Cronin expressed the urgency of a decision from the committee, as there is a long list of steps before construction can even begin, starting with Board of Aldermen approval of the project's funding.
"The timeline is extremely tight," Cronin said.
To make an impact on the 2012-2013 school year, a decision will likely have to be made early next week, Cronin said.
Deputy Superintendent Paul Stein presented extensive information relating to student class and team size at the middle school level, specifically at Day.
If classrooms are not added there, class and team sizes will reach levels that are not conducive for middle school education, Stein said.
Teams, Stein explained, are sections of students that work with a group of two to four teachers. The average team size ranges between 88-92 students, Stein said, which is a number that allows comfortable classroom sizes and a productive learning environment.
The higher the team numbers go, the higher the classroom sizes go, Stein said, which negatively impacts the learning of students.
"You cannot avoid adding classes in the next four years even if you allow team sizes to go as high as 110 (students)," Stein said.
With the current number of classrooms, Stein said Day Middle School will have average team sizes around 93 and as high as 98 students next year, which translates to about 24 or 25 students per class.
It is important to create small learning communities for middle school-age children as it is a crucial point in an adolescent's personal and educational life, Stein said.
"(Middle school) kids are trying to figure out who they are," Stein said.
The strain on space for Day students could provide inequity in education among Newton's public middle schools, Stein added.
Day Middle School Principal Brian Turner attested to the negative impacts of keeping the number of classrooms the same.
Not only would it impact the learning environment, Turner said, but it will also affect the programs offered as well as teachers' workspace and prep time.
Some teachers have come to Turner "in tears," the principal said, with the current space situations and the possibility that School Committee members could reject building expansion.
Members of the team including Stein, Turner, Cronin and Deputy Superintendent and Chief Administrative Officer Sandra Guryan said they also considered the option of re-districting the schools to even out enrollment.
The team put together an extensive report and weighed several options of changing the flow of students from one school to another.
However, even with the most ideal model, Guryan said redistricting wouldn't solve the space problems.
"What this illustrates is that we have a capacity problem that can't necessarily be fixed by redistricting," Guryan said.
Elementary space needs
The team also considered some space problems at five of the district's 15 public elementary schools, including Countryside, Mason-Rice, Horace Mann, Burr and Zervas.
Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Joseph Russo presented his findings at the five schools, reporting that many of them are strained for space and forced to section off into tiny meeting rooms.
At Zervas, for example, Russo said many specialists, including the literacy specialist and math coach, must share a room of cubicles to complete work and meet with students.
"It is unfeasible to me to say this is an OK thing," Russo said.
While many spaces within the schools can be reconfigured into classrooms, Russo suggested adding modular classrooms on to Zervas, Mason-Rice, Burr and Horace Mann.
Several elementary school parents also expressed their concern for the growing elementary populations and requested the committee consider some of the expansion options.
Concerns with funding
Following the comprehensive report by the administration, School Committee members expressed their concern both for the space problems at the schools and the lack of funding to solve those problems.
"The nightmare scenario is that we pass the (new) space and then cannot hire the additional teachers (to fill the space)," said committee member Geoff Epstein.
Epstein expressed his concern for room in the School Budget with the mayor's finance presentation on Monday outlining a potential $8 million gap in the city's budget.
Spending money on new space could cost the jobs of several teachers, Epstein suggested.
"These are difficult tradeoffs we are making," said committee Chairwoman Claire Sokoloff.
Committee member Margie Ross Decter expressed her concern with adding 11 teachers to a new space at just one school when there are space needs across the district.
"It's hard for me to think about 11 teachers in a vacuum," Decter said.
Ward 4 Alderman at-Large Lenny Gentile, a former School Committee member, said he will support the decision of the School Committee as long as they know it is the best decision for the future of the schools.
"Please don't cut up library space or infill (physical education) areas," Gentile said. "What I want to see is something well-thought-out."
School Committee members will meet again on Monday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m. following a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. for the student placement policy. Meetings are held in room 210 of the education center.