Newton city and school officials are working to establish a task force that will be charged with offering recommendations to address the deteriorating building conditions and declining enrollment at the Ward and Underwood elementary schools, officials said last month.
The decision to create a task force was introduced at a joint city council and school committee meeting on Jan. 15, in which district superintendent David Fleishman presented the findings of a December 2019 enrollment analysis report. Fleishman followed the meeting with a letter sent to members of both school communities the following day, explaining that “our two oldest elementary schools are now our two smallest elementary schools.”
Enrollment projections for the next five years, which were made using historical population and enrollment data as well as forecasts made by a city-hired demographer, suggest that in two years, Ward Elementary School will have just 218 students and that Underwood Elementary School will have 241 students. In 2018, the schools had 296 and 290 students, respectively, according to the report.
“We have two buildings that are declining in enrollment that are very old, and a very 21st-century education model where we want to have at least three classrooms at every grade level to provide maximum versatility in educational programing,” School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman said in a telephone interview.
Despite the consensus among officials on the need for upgrades to the two schools, several city councilors at the Jan. 15 joint meeting expressed concerns about the task force’s objectives and the city’s reliance on short-term projections to make potentially long-term decisions.
Councilor R. Lisle Baker, the city council’s president emeritus, raised questions about the task force’s working parameters and decision-making structure. Similarly, Councilor Marc C. Laredo questioned administrators’ reliance on enrollment projections that could be underestimating the number of students in the district in the coming years, especially considering upcoming residential development projects in the city.
“I would be extremely concerned about closing a school, because the decisions you’re making are going to last 10, 20, 30, 40 years,” Laredo, whose three children attended the Ward school, said in a telephone interview. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but I think we need to be exceptionally cautious about it … We’ve been wrong in the past.”
In eight of the last 18 years, the school district’s enrollment projections have overestimated actual enrollment. The other 10 years saw enrollment projections underestimate actual enrollment, according to the December 2019 report.
None of the developments that are currently in the works in Newton are likely to have an impact on either school, as they would be in different parts of the city, said Kathy Shields, a school committee member and mother of two current Ward students.
Smaller classes might sound ideal to many parents, but school committee officials say the consequences of declining enrollment are more complicated than they may seem at first glance.
The number of classrooms used in the Ward school is expected to drop from 14 to 12 next year — a first in the school’s 92-year history. The Underwood school will also become a 12-class school next year — a system that has not been implemented at the 96-year-old school in a very long time, Shields said.
The reduced number of classes presents new challenges for school administrators, who have been grappling with how to continue offering the same educational programming with fewer full-time teachers. Declining enrollment could come at the cost of losing full-time staff dedicated to mental health or co-teaching, a system that allows students with and without special education needs to learn alongside each other, Fleishman said at the joint meeting.
Members of the Ward school community met with Newton Public Schools administrators in February to discuss their concerns and recommendations. A similar meeting was held for members of the Underwood school community, officials said.
The task force, which will officially begin its work in the coming weeks, will comprise staff and parents from both schools, city councilors, school committee members, assistant superintendents, the school district’s director of planning, and the city’s building commissioner, according to Fleishman’s letter.
The meetings will not be open to the public, but they will be complemented by additional joint meetings open to members of both school communities, Goldman said.
Among the many factors the task force will consider is the sense of community at each school and how that aspect may be impacted by renovations, closures, mergers, or whatever the school committee deems necessary following the task force’s recommendations.
“Ward is a really, really different community than Underwood,” said Andrea Chahrourcq, the mother of two current Underwood students. “People walk to school all the time, everybody knows the crossing guards, looks out for everybody else’s kids, watches each other’s kids on the playground. It’s really nice. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, let’s have a bigger school’ without worrying that you might lose that.”
The task force will likely meet every other week until June, when it will present school and city officials with options and recommendations on how to best move forward after having considered all the potential implications, Goldman said.
“We have a moral obligation to the generations that follow us to do this work now. I will be supporting whatever measures are needed, including overrides, to support it,” Laredo said. “The work doesn’t end.”
Andres Picon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.