School board wants more study of Staples space crunch
Published 5:43 am, Thursday, October 22, 2015
With Staples High School’s enrollment testing the school’s physical limits, changes are likely in the offing — but what they might be is far from certain.
A presentation to the Board of Education on Monday night by James D’Amico, the district’s director of secondary education, painted a picture of tight quarters and limited options at the school, which is projected to hit peak enrollment in the 2017-18 school year with 1,908 students.
Two months ago the board heard a proposal for a $21 million expansion project at Staples to address space needs, with a focus on science and technology. At that time, school board members reacted with surprise to the project, and instead wanted to learn more details first about enrollment, space utilization and future programming.
Monday board discussion raised the questions about whether the solution lies in constructing additional space, adding modular classrooms, redesigning the school’s existing layout, increasing class sizes, or some combination of all of these options. In the end, the board decided it still needs more information.
“I understand that we’re full,” said board member Mark Mathias. “That seems pretty obvious that we’re full, (but) in some ways I see it as a bit of a temporary problem.”
Enrollment figures released by Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon show an overall decrease in enrollment for the school district, with a projected K-12 drop of 8.6 percent, or 485 students, by 2025-26. The current number of 5,643 for 2015-16 is projected to fall to 5,380 in 2020-21, then ultimately 5,158 in the 2025-26 school year, according to Donald Kennedy of the New England School Development Council.
At Staples, which currently has 1,887 students, 2016-17 is projected to have 1,876 enrolled, then peaking at 1,908 the following year. In 2018-19 the number is projected to drop to 1,881, then to 1,860 the following year. Enrollment is projected at 1,840 for the 2025-26 school year.
“If we are going to have declining enrollment, I believe that some of this will be mitigating,” Mathias said.
“Anything beyond five years is … speculative and certainly unreliable,” said Landon.
“There are alternatives…,” he said. “The first is you can increase space by doing modulars, except in this town there is no way that Planning and Zoning … will allow us to put modulars on that property.”
“You could increase class size … but nobody wants that and this board has made it clear that 25 is the max,” he said.
Sue Rubin, a Staples PTA co-president, however, read a letter from one Staples teacher who already has 26 students in some classes. “In a 50-minute period — no matter the model — it is beyond challenging to assess each student and provide differentiated instruction,” they said. “A smaller classroom environment should be a first priority of the board.”
The teacher also said there is not enough adequate meeting space for extra help with students, with a multi-use conference room the only option. “It honestly seems so counterintuitive to me that our district cannot provide teachers their own classroom for instruction to our kids,” they said.
D’Amico, too, recounted difficulties finding space for all classes, noting that general-use spaces are at 96 percent capacity, with specialized classrooms at around 75 percent capacity.
“You can’t just say every class has to be capped at 25 people,” said board Vice Chairman Jeannie Smith, a former teacher. “Every subject varies in terms of what is the idea number.”
“I’d love to have this be a discussion among the educators,” she said.
“We will put this back in James’s court — and Elliott’s,” Chairman Michael Gordon said.
“Once we’ve really understood the space and we’ve understood the programs,” he said, D’Amico should devise “a different range of solutions to address that that the board can look at.”
Member Paul Block, however, said it was beyond D’Amico’s purview and that the board needed to draw on an outside consultant and possibly help from the community to find answers.
“This isn’t your area of expertise. and I don’t think we should burden you with that,” he told D’Amico. “I think it’s fair to ask you to participate, but somehow we need more resources.”
“I think the director of second education is highly relevant to any solutions,” Gordon said. “It’s not going to be your job solely, but I think if we’re expanding the high school, I think that you’re part of that process.”