By Dustin Luca
---- — The school department hopes that $225,000 in studies will give it the insight it needs to address high school overcrowding and create a townwide preschool.
Superintendent Marinel McGrath has filed a warrant article for this spring’s Annual Town Meeting asking residents to appropriate the money.
The request is three-fold, she said. First, the department would conduct a space study and create a conceptual design for Andover High School that would “delineate short- and long-term space options to realize additional classroom space” in the crowded school.
A second study would look at creating an Early Childhood Center, a facility designed for preschool-aged children. Officials have been considering such a center in recent years as the town anticipates closing Shawsheen School and reallocating its students, which would displace the school’s pre-kindergarten students.
The final portion of the money would go toward studying “the possibilities for elementary expansion due to enrollment increases across the district,” McGrath said.
HIGH SCHOOL: SPACE IN SHORT SUPPLY
Residents and officials have long applauded Andover for its strength in public schools, but they’ve often recognized a drawback to that: more families moving in, causing greater financial strain.
Bancroft Elementary School was designed with that in mind. The replacement building being built today is designed to educate 200 more students than the current structure.
But as the town addresses a $5.7 million budget gap on the project at next month’s Special Town Meeting, Andover High School Principal Chris Lord said his building is in desperate need of an expansion.
Andover High currently serves a few hundred students beyond what it was designed for, Lord said, and more are coming next year.
“We have terrific overcrowding in the classes,” he said. “Our No. 1 goal in the next year is personalization, and we’re going to be reducing class sizes. We’re going to be struggling to find places to put students and a teacher.”
Any given day, there is only one classroom available during one period, according to Lord. During the school’s other three periods, every classroom space is filled.
The school may look to add electives that will use physical education spaces to draw down the size of other academic classes, according to Lord.
“If there’s room in the gym, and the yoga room, those spaces are empty,” he said. “We can’t put chairs in there, but if kids were taking PE, that would be taking them out of the academic settings.”
The space crunch has also affected how the school serves lunch. As it stands, three waves of students move in and out of the school’s 450-student cafeteria during the school day’s third block.
But there’s one problem. Divide the 1,800 student population by three, and you have 600 students per wave going into a space designed for 450. Some students stand in line for so long that they barely have time to eat once they find a seat, Lord said.
Starting Tuesday, the beginning of the second semester, the school will be eliminating the 12-minute breaks between lunch periods in favor of adding a fourth lunch period, according to Lord. That will bring the average lunch period down to 450 students.
“We’re going to pilot it and make it work here, just to see if we can get kids a lunch in a reasonable time frame,” he said. “We’re hoping this solution gets kids fed.”
STUDY WOULD BEGIN SEARCH FOR ANSWER
The study looking at the high school would provide recommendations and conceptual designs that would convert the school campus’ presently open spaces into classrooms, according to McGrath.
The designs could show how the high school could add “additional classrooms to existing areas such as the main foyer, café courtyard, field house or behind the Collins Center [for the Performing Arts],” McGrath said.
One other option would be to redesign the current library footprint, which Lord said could include building up into the currently unoccupied space, where third floor rooms and hallways look down into the library from above.
Another option would be to “bump out” the cafeteria to where an amphitheater-like arrangement exists outside today, put classrooms in the existing cafeteria space and add classrooms above where the cafeteria would go, according to Lord.
“Somebody told me there would be eight classrooms above it,” Lord said.
SHAWSHEEN, SANBORN: FUTURE CHILDHOOD CENTERS?
All options are on the table for the town’s proposed early childhood center. Another part of the proposal would address the need for space for that center, according to McGrath.
“The ECC part of the study will review the useful life and functionality of Shawsheen (School) as an Early Childhood Education Center,” McGrath said. The study would also “include an assessment of the expandability of Sanborn (Elementary) School for this purpose with recommended options and cost estimates for building a committee to evaluate.”
But before the work begins, town residents have to approve the spending. At least for the high school, there is a contingency plan in place if voters reject the proposal at Annual Town Meeting. The high school portion of the study would return within the fiscal year 2015 Capital Improvement Plan since high school overcrowding “is not going to go away,” McGrath said.
For Lord, short-term planning will continue.
“We’re coming up with creative solutions for next year, because there won’t be an expansion this summer,” Lord said. “There just isn’t available space here.”