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Boston land swap gives North End schools a lift

Eliot, N. Bennet fill growing needs

Boston finalized a real estate swap in the North End Monday that will allow a popular public school to potentially double in size and, at the same time, give new life to an artisan workshop with a 131-year tradition.

The $11.3 million deal will give the Eliot K-8 School a second campus with four new buildings on North Bennet and Tileston streets. While renovations will not be complete until September 2015, the promise of more space is a reward for the turnaround at the Eliot, which has become one of the city’s strongest schools. Five years ago, it had such trouble academically that half its seats sat empty while parents sent their children elsewhere. Now, it brims with 322 students, plus a waiting list of 295 clamoring to get in.

“We’re absolutely thrilled with the news,’’ said Eliot principal Traci Walker Griffith. “It’s a great time for us at the Eliot, knowing what we’ve done in five short years.’’

The partner in the land deal is the North Bennet Street School, a private vocational school where students use hand tools to make furniture, violins, and cabinets; to bind books; and to perfect other crafts. The workshop will leave the home it has occupied since 1881 and move to the city’s defunct printing plant, a large industrial building at North and Richmond streets.

The North Bennet Street School will pay $4.6 million in cash, in addition to giving the city its four buildings, appraised at $6.7 million. The school also pledged to provide an annual scholarship of roughly $20,000 to a local student in lieu of property taxes, which the school is not required to pay as a nonprofit.

The move, expected to be complete by September 2013, will give the North Bennet Street School enough space to reunite its programs under one roof. Cramped quarters forced instructors to move some courses to South Boston and Arlington. The new space will also allow the school to expand its lectures and workshops for the public, said Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, North Bennet Street’s president.

“It’s a real turning point for the school,’’ Gómez-Ibáñez said. “It allows us to create a facility that will really meet our needs.’’

At the Eliot, the deal validated the hard work of teachers, students, and many others, Griffith said. When the new principal took over in 2007, the state designated the Eliot as one of Boston’s worst schools. Now, the state considers it one of the best.

In a statement released Monday outlining the deal, Mayor Thomas M. Menino described the Eliot as a “true gem.’’

“Parents have urged us to expand this small, successful school,’’ Menino said. “Expanding the program helps us deliver on our promise to provide quality educational choices in every part of Boston and connect schools with the communities they support.’’

Menino and School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson plan to meet with North End parents May 22 to discuss the expansion in detail.

The four buildings - 37-39 North Bennet St., and 48-52 Tileston St., in the North End - are a short distance from the Eliot K-8 School. City officials could not provide cost estimates for the renovations because plans are being finalized by the city’s architect, according to Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce. It was also too soon to know if the building would require significant abatement for lead paint or other contaminants left over from the North Bennet Street School, Joyce said.

For now, at least one North End parent greeted the news with enthusiasm. Jennifer McGivern’s 5-year-old is in kindergarten at the Eliot, and she hopes her 3-year-old will attend, too.

“It shows that the city of Boston is a place where families can stay and can raise their children,’’ McGivern said. “It gives hope that it is a priority.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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