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Reading

Schools search for more space

On Tuesday night, Lori Russo and her daughter Ellie packed up pencils, a turkey and cheese sandwich, and a Justin Bieber folder, getting ready to send Ellie to her first day of kindergarten at Barrows School.

“She’s really excited,” Russo said, adding she hopes she will get to repeat this routine in three years when her 2-year-old son, Nicholas, is ready for school.

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At this point, however, it is unclear whether Nicholas will follow in his sister’s footsteps. Reading school officials are grappling with the question of how — and where — to offer publicly funded, full-day kindergarten to all children in town, with elementary schools already full to capacity.

“In every school in our district now, we have no additional classroom space,” Superintendent John Doherty said.

Some possible solutions, such as using modular classrooms or adding on to existing buildings, would expand capacity at the five current elementary schools. Other options, such as building an entirely new school, could require shuttling students away from their neighborhood schools.

The most recent proposal was to buy and renovate a building formerly used as a school by St. Agnes Church on Woburn Street. It would have housed preschool and kindergarten children from the Barrows and Joshua Eaton school neighborhoods.

The School Committee, however, scuttled that plan late last month. A recent estimate put the cost of the project at around $15 million, Doherty said, significantly higher than the original estimate of $7 million to $10 million. In addition, traffic studies found likely problems creating efficient pick-up and drop-off areas.

“We’re going to take a step back, hit the reset button, and put together a working group to take a look at the options that are left on the table,” Doherty said.

The current search for space is being driven by swelling demand for full-day kindergarten, Doherty said. In the 2005-2006 school year, the town had just one full-day kindergarten classroom; this year there are nine classrooms dedicated to full-day kindergarten and another two shared by full-day and part-time students.

Today, 68 percent of parents want to put their kindergartners in full-day programs, Doherty said.

Town leaders want to go further, making full-day kindergarten available to everyone, without a fee. Currently the town charges $4,200 per year for the full-day program, among the highest fees in the state.

“We are committed to provide publicly funded full-day kindergarten sometime in the future, once the space is available,” Doherty said.

Reading’s kindergarten ambitions are part of a statewide trend.

Between fiscal years 1999 and 2013, the percentage of Massachusetts kindergartners in a full-day program grew to 86 percent from 29 percent, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Today, 298 of 309 districts statewide offer some full-day kindergarten.

The state has been encouraging this growth, offering grants to help cities and towns start and improve full-day programs. In fiscal 2013, nearly $24 million in grants was awarded.

“Kindergarten is the first experience of formal schooling for many children,” said J.C. Considine, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “It is a pivotal year in children’s lives and education.”

In 2011 Reading hired a consultant to assess the space available in the existing elementary schools. The report, prepared by Frank Locker Educational Planning, was not encouraging.

All of the schools were significantly smaller than Massachusetts School Building Authority guidelines would recommend, even for the current student population. Even a moderate uptick in enrollment could push four of the five schools over capacity within three years.

Furthermore, there is little land available for expansion at any of the schools, making it somewhat challenging to build additions or bring in modular classrooms. A new building for just preschool and kindergarten could cost more than $33 million, the report estimated; a new elementary school could come close to $45 million.

Other options suggested by the consultant include increasing average class sizes and introducing multiage classrooms.

As she sends her daughter into the Reading public school system, Russo said she is hoping for a solution that allows both her children to attend the same school from kindergarten through fifth grade.

“In a perfect world, Ellie will be in third grade and her little brother will be in kindergarten and they’ll be in the same school,” Russo said. “I feel like that’s how it should be.”

Sarah Shemkus may be reached at sarah.shemkus
@gmail.com
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