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Boston schools address student shifts

Many classrooms to be relocated

Boston school officials, responding to dramatic fluctuations in enrollment across the district, plan to unveil a wide-ranging facilities plan Wednesday night that calls for changing the locations of several schools, converting some elementary schools into K-8 schools, and opening two new early learning centers, according to a draft presentation obtained by the Globe.

The plan attempts to address a perplexing shift in student demographics that has seen enrollment surge in the lower grades, but drop sharply in the upper grades.

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Consequently, the School Department is anticipating a surplus of more than 9,000 seats in grades 6 through 12 next fall, an excess that would grow even higher in the coming years, according to the 42-page presentation. All the while, the city is grappling with a shortage of kindergarten and first-grade seats that could swell to more than 1,200 in four years if no action is taken.

The proposal will be presented to the School Committee Wednesday night during a period of immense uncertainty over the leader and direction of the school district. Voters will be electing a new mayor next month who will set a new educational vision, including ideas to address facilities problems, and will also be hiring a new superintendent.

Yet school officials intend to expedite some parts of the plan, setting a School Committee vote for Nov. 6, one day after the mayoral election. The vote by the mayorally appointed committee could deliver outgoing Mayor Thomas M. Menino yet another set of commitments for a new mayor, who may not support the facilities plan.

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Interim Superintendent John McDonough said the School Committee needs to act quickly because many aspects of the plan would be implemented next fall, and parents need to have the information when they start registering their children for school next month.

“The timing of this is not driven by the needs of candidates but by the needs of families,” McDonough said in an interview. “We need to be clear with families what their choices will be.”

The plan, however, could stir immense debate among students, parents, and teachers who have been subjected to a number of facility plans over the last five years that have shuttered more than a dozen schools and shifted the locations of others. Some families yearn for stability in the city’s lineup of schools, observers say.

“I think it could be a hard sell,” said Kim Janey, a regular attendee of School Committee meetings and senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston nonprofit. “The School Committee needs to make sure there is a good process to hear the voices of families and the broader community on these issues.”

The proposal is the School Department’s third installment of a much-anticipated master plan for its facilities, developed after several School Committee members and councilors have criticized the School Department for a piecemeal approach to facility problems.

Michael O’Neill, the committee chairman, said he could not predict how other members would react to the proposal and vote on it next month, but he said members are eager to hear the presentation.

“We have been impressing upon the district the need to take a step back and look at the bigger framework overall,” O’Neill said.

School officials predict that enrollment growth in the lower grades over the next few years could create the need for 240 additional classrooms, approximately the equivalent of six new school buildings that could cost about $380 million.

The growth comes after the School Department added 78 classrooms to dozens of elementary and K-8 schools across the city.

But the new plan does not recommend building any more schools beyond those currently proposed, such as for the Dearborn, Quincy Upper School, and Boston Arts Academy. Nor does it recommend closing any schools.

School officials are still trying to figure out how many of the growing number of students enrolling in preschool and kindergarten will stick with the school system as they age, especially as charter schools open more programs for middle and high school students.

Currently, 45 percent of students who depart for charter schools do so after finishing Grade 4, and another 25 percent do after Grade 5. The district also loses students to private schools in the middle or high school years, and some families move to the suburbs.

Overall, enrollment over the next four years is expected to rise by 7 percent, to about 62,000, according to School Department projections based largely on estimates by the consulting group WXY Architecture and Urban Design.

The immediate changes, if approved, would be far-reaching. Two new early learning centers would open in fall 2014, dislocating two alternative high schools residing in former elementary school buildings.

One early childhood center would use Community Academy’s building in Jamaica Plain; the other, Boston Adult Technical Academy’s building in Dorchester. It is not known yet where the high schools would go.

The Montessori program at the East Boston Early Education Center would spin off into its own school in the former Alighieri School in East Boston.

Another Course to College, which is occupying a half-
empty building
in Brighton, would swap space with Boston Green Academy in South Boston, enabling that school to add a long-planned middle school program.

Similarly, Dorchester Academy would join Community Academy of Science and Health at its building, bumping out the Harbor Pilot School.

The Harbor would then move into Dorchester Academy’s old building, which would allow it to absorb some upper grades from the Henderson Inclusion Elementary School, enabling it to add more classrooms for its youngest students.

A final key change for next fall would convert the following six elementary schools into K-8 schools: the Blackstone, South End; the Hennigan, Jamaica Plain; the Mattahunt, Mattapan; the Trotter, Dorchester/Roxbury; and the Condon and the Tynan in South Boston.

More broadly, the plan calls for creating even more K-8 schools, or reconfiguring elementary schools to end at Grade 3 and shifting grades 4 and 5 to middle schools.

McDonough said this part of the plan will be subject to community meetings over the next several months before the School Committee makes a decision.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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