The School Committee was updated, on Wednesday, Dec. 7 about discussions within the Whitman Middle School Building Committee to reconfigure the school from a grade six to eight to a grade five through eight school.
“We’re in the meat of those discussions right now,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said about talks concerning whose decision that will be, how a decision would be made and other details. “However, I think it’s imperative that the school committee has an idea of why the leadership team wants to move to a five through eight [school].”
Parents have already been communicated with on the issue, but it seems apparent that the School Committee chair will have to sign off on any change in grade configuration. While it is not yet known whether the School Committee would also have to approve it, Szymaniak said a joint meeting between the School Committee and Building Committee is being planned.
“For this project to be successful in our community, the School Building Committee and the School Committee should be parallel,” he said. “We should have the same thoughts and understand the same limitations per se that might be impeding that process.”
Not only would a grade configuration adjustment mean a school culture and education change, but there would be a cost-factor involved increasing the price tag of the project, Szymaniak said.
Another potential cost-factor is the discussion surrounding whether to include an auditorium in the building. The district supports it because it gives students the same experience as students at Hanson Middle School, which has an auditorium. On the other hand, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) does not reimburse for an auditorium.
“That’s strict cost to the town,” he said. “We will present information about why we think it’s important for our students to have that opportunity and our architects and OPM, through discussion with the building committee are also discussing why an auditorium might benefit the community as a whole.”
Szymaniak said that what is known is that the renovation/expansion plan is “very expensive” and would take longer than a new building.
The new school is also being planned as a three-story building, which permits different grade configurations.
Szymaniak is surveying parents of the preschool, Conley, Duval and the middle school to solicit their comments about the new school and a potential grade reconfiguration and auditorium.
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro, who has worked in middle schools for his entire career, before he became assistant superintendent, briefed the committee on the effects of various grade configurations.
“[Grades] five to eight is the spot where you can capture and do the most good for an adolescent,” Ferro said of the students who are ages 10 to 14 in those grades. “With the rise of social media and things of that nature, it’s really grade five [that’s] more aligned with a middle school setting.”
Ages 10 to 14 in the same building give students the chance to come to grips with themselves and social interactions so they can advance to high school with not only increased academic knowledge, but also in what it is likely to be a knowledgeable respectful young adult able to work together, think critically and take on new experiences that high school brings.
“We’re cautious,” Szymaniak said about a building with fifth to eighth-graders in it. “But we can design a program, like we’ve designed in Hanson, to keep them pretty separate, except for common areas or in passing times.”
As costs for a new school are calculated, Szymaniak said it is important to determine what is best for educating students.
“We have to give the building committee a lot of credit,” Committee member Fred Small said, noting that panel has spent a lot of time looking at the pros and cons of the issue. “Initially, I was a complete ‘Nah, we can’t afford it.’ As I spoke to more and more people, forgetting about the cost factor and just [looking at] what the benefits are, and determining, ‘Well, yeah.’”
While he is beginning to see the need, Small expressed concern that the school building will become so large, it fails.
Vice Chair Christopher Scriven asked what had initially led Small to feel a new school was something the district couldn’t afford.
“I think we owe it to other members of the committee, we owe it to constituents, to have an open mind and to approach this from a learning perspective,’ he said.
Dawn Byers asked what would happen if the building committee voted against bringing forth a project to the full committee. The fact that Hanson Middle School is already a grade five to eight school means there are already middle school students with different experiences in the district.
“It would be my hope we are listening to parents in the community,” she said.
Chair Christopher Howard said the full committee should request direction from the MSBA on how a plan is endorsed, adding he would not sign off on it unless there is a vote by the full School Committee.
He said the School Committee should attend any meeting in which the building committee votes, so the full committee would have information on how that vote is arrived at.
“I don’t see how someone like myself who hasn’t been involved in the process would just go into that and vote,” he said.
Member Beth Stafford said the building committee can take a vote and then the full committee signs off based on what the building committee has said.
“You haven’t been involved in all the work of the building committee and the sticking point is that most members of the building committee do not want Hanson members voting on it, because … it’s not Hanson’s pockets,” she said. “It’s Whitman.”
Where it goes from there is what Szymaniak is trying to find out, Stafford said.
Hanson member Hillary Kniffen expressed concern over the possibility that programs could be taken away from Hanson students, especially if the Whitman school project fails as ripple effects that would be felt.
“When we get into that, it becomes us vs them, and it becomes very problematic,” she said.