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School enrollment surge has districts scrambling for classroom space

A crowd of coats in the hallway at Woodland Elementary School.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

A crowd of coats in the hallway at Woodland Elementary School.

A surge in kindergarten students has left Framingham school officials scrambling for classroom space. In Milford, educators expect to teach more students than forecast by the census once all of the town’s immigrant children enroll. And Natick is studying whether to build a new middle school to ease overcrowding a year after the town’s $89 million high school opened.

The squeeze in many area districts might not be as bad as in Brookline and Newton, but their schools are reaching their limits as new students are predicted to crowd into classrooms already busting at the seams, particularly in the younger grades.

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“We have 150 to 200 additional students working their way through the pipeline,” said Mark Prince, assistant superintendent in Framingham. “That’s been the case for the last three years. We’re attracting families faster than we can accommodate.”

The newcomers are only part of the challenge. Most towns have schools that are obsolete and due for replacement. Many were built from the 1950s to early 1970s, when the needs of students with disabilities and other issues weren’t included in architectural plans.

Framingham recently submitted a proposal to the Massachusetts School Building Authority to replace Fuller Middle School, built in 1958. The town will conduct a $400,000 feasibility study to develop the proposal before reaching a cost estimate for construction.

The district will be able to shuffle classroom space in elementary schools to handle the influx of kindergarten students, Prince said, but it will take some imagination.

About 610 fifth-graders are due to graduate to middle school in Framingham in the fall, Prince said. At the same time, 800 students are enrolled in kindergarten. The higher grades are not yet ready to absorb the larger student population on the horizon, he said.

‘We’re attracting families faster than we can accommodate.’

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“They need classrooms for 200 kids in certain grades and going up,” he said. “It will be years for that bubble to make its way through.”

Natick is experiencing a similar space crunch.

“We’ve basically been averaging an extra 100 students per year,” said Superintendent Peter Sanchioni.

In the 2008-2009 academic year, the school district had about 4,600 students, Sanchioni said, while this year almost 5,000 are enrolled.

Natick officials are considering replacing the John F. Kennedy Middle School, built in 1965. Like their counterparts in Framingham, the district’s administrators have contacted the state authority to get the ball rolling on help funding the project, a process that can take years, and require approval by Town Meeting voters and at the ballot box if higher property taxes would be needed to pay for it.

It’s not hard to see where the new children are coming from, Framingham and Natick officials said.

“People are moving in. Houses sell as populations age out of large homes and new people move in,” said Sanchioni. “There certainly have been some new developments in Natick, some two- to three-bedroom condominiums that have added students.”

Prince looked on the bright side of population growth.

“Framingham is a great place to be,” he said. “It’s affordable. It’s family-friendly. It’s a good location to Boston. Our community is a very inviting and diverse community. Good for us that we have that. It’s not a problem.”

In Milford, Superintendent Robert Tremblay is also happy to educate more children. His problem is not knowing how many more the school system is going to see on the first day of classes. The town’s school population is forecast to remain fairly steady in the coming years, he said. But those predictions don’t include the children of immigrants who have recently been settling in the community.

“There are pockets of immigrants we may not be accounting for,” said Tremblay. “They are moving in with other family members. We’re seeing that growth particularly.”

Before Milford parents can enroll their children in school, they are required to present an affidavit from their landlord stating that they aren’t living in an overcrowded household. If they are, the school district contacts the Health Department out of concern for the family’s safety, said Tremblay. “Zoning prohibits three families in a one-family house,” he said.

Milford is considering building a $61 million replacement for Woodland Elementary School, which was constructed in 1977 and doesn’t include facilities for special education students and others with special needs. The project is in the design phase, and the state building authority is expected to cover more than half of the project’s cost. Tremblay said it wouldn’t trigger additional taxes because the town’s share could be covered under current levy limits.

Statewide, most school systems aren’t overcrowded except for a few cities and towns close to Boston, said the building authority’s executive director, Jack McCarthy. Nonetheless, he added, aging school facilities need replacing anyway. “There are a lot of inefficiencies in the use of space in the old buildings,” he said.

McCarthy sought to calm officials grappling with spiking student enrollments, noting that many of the children flooding into suburban school districts won’t stay through 12th grade.

“Some places you’ll see there’s an influx in the early grades,” he said. “By the time they get to high school, they’ve lost a lot of those people, either to a private high school or elsewhere.”

John Dyer can be reached at johnjdyerjr@gmail.com.
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