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NEWTON — Following a public outcry by parents and teachers late last month over conditions at the Horace Mann Elementary School, officials have pledged to upgrade the building, improve communication with community members, and explore constructing an addition to the facility.
They also have offered a mea culpa, saying they did not address space limitations and other issues in the Nevada Street building before the Horace Mann school moved in earlier this year.
“Mistakes were made, and we need to earn back the trust of that community,” Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in an interview Monday. “We are immediately focusing on the use of Horace Mann, we’ll prioritize whatever the right solution is.”
Fuller has pushed for improvements at other city schools, including at Lincoln-Eliot, Franklin, Countryside, Ward, and the Newton Early Childhood Program, which is located in Horace Mann’s former home on Watertown Street.
At Horace Mann, Fuller said she is confident that officials and community members will look at the “permanent solution” of a building addition.
“We’ll have to work with the community to decide what size an addition should be, how many classrooms it would contain, and where it should be located,” Fuller said. “A permanent addition takes a few years to design, build, and cut the ribbon on, so it will be a number of years before it’s in place.”
The pledges for increased support for Horace Mann comes after about 200 parents and teachers confronted school officials during an Oct. 28 public meeting in the school’s gymnasium, arguing that the building’s classrooms are too small, its outdated design interferes with special education students, and poor acoustics make learning more difficult.
Formerly the Carr school, the building that serves as the present Horace Mann school in Nonantum underwent a yearlong, $12 million renovation that was completed in 2014.
The work included a new roof, windows, interior finishes, and improvements for fire protection, communications systems, and utilities at the building, which was erected in 1934.
The renovation allowed the building to serve as temporary space for students of three other schools — Angier, Zervas, and Cabot — while those buildings underwent upgrade projects over the past several years. The final project, at Cabot, was completed last summer.
Over the summer, upgrades at the Horace Mann included adding an air conditioning system. But that renovation work focused on improving an old building, not turning it into a modern school.
Ruth Goldman, the chairwoman of the city’s School Committee, said the district did not conduct an educational assessment of the building before Horace Mann moved in. That review would have been used to determine improvements the building would need to meet the educational needs of students and teachers.
School officials intend to launch an assessment of the building early next year, which would be done in conjunction with a working group that includes parents and teachers, Goldman said. That review would likely be completed in the summer of 2020.
In the meantime, the district will install two modular classrooms that should be ready by the end of the Christmas break, she said. The district also will make other upgrades, including the installation of acoustic tiles inside classrooms, the addition of sinks to second-floor classrooms, and playground improvements.
“It was a good solid swing space, but it really hadn’t been evaluated as a permanent home, and the parents were right on about that,” Goldman said in an interview Monday.
During the Oct. 28 meeting at Horace Mann, Chris Esmonde, a parent of two fifth-graders at the school, was the first of many audience members to address officials.
“If you are a sighted individual, a person with two eyes, you will see the difference in equity in the educational facilities [between Cabot and Horace Mann] that is just unbelievable,” Esmonde told officials. “Horace Mann is not an up-to-date teaching and learning facility. This community needs an up-to-date facility now! Not 10 years from now. Not 20 years from now!”
Teachers in the crowd wore the red shirts of the Newton Teachers Association. One of them told officials: “This move is breaking us.”
Superintendent David Fleishman said during the meeting that the school department made a mistake by not including faculty in decision-making.
“The process was flawed,” he said.
Julia Gaebler, a parent of a fourth-grader at the school, launched a write-in campaign days before the Nov. 5 School Committee election in part to draw attention to problems at Horace Mann.
“These building issues are important and have long-term consequences,” Gaebler said in an interview Monday. “Newton prides itself on having among the best educational system in the country. That needs to be maintained.”
She wants school officials to improve engagement with parents and teachers, and said the school’s community must be more involved with building decisions.
Gaebler doesn’t want what occurred at Horace Mann to happen to teachers, families, and students at other Newton public schools, she said.
In a Facebook post, Gaebler and Esmonde praised officials for responding quickly to community concerns about the building at a Nov. 4 School Committee meeting.
“In our brief public comments, Julia Gaebler and I expressed our thanks to the SC and a sincere willingness to turn the page and move forward to work constructively with the City, the Ed Center, and the School Committee in creating 21st century classrooms and learning spaces at Horace Mann,” Esmonde wrote.