School space and school renovations continue to top the agenda for the Needham School Committee and administration. Even while we wrap up a major repair project at Newman, which we began planning for right after the new High Rock School was opened, we are looking ahead to the renovation and/or replacement of the Hillside and Mitchell elementary schools. And it won’t be too long before we consider what it is we need to do to modernize Pollard.
Last week architects from Dore and Whittier shared an update with community members about their analysis of Hillside and Mitchell and possible building options. The School Committee and Permanent Public Building Committee commissioned the study in anticipation of submitting a request to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for further study and possible state funding of a renovation project for both schools.
The School Committee established several conditions they asked the architects to consider in their planning. Among them:
• Elementary school size between 400 and 500 is optimum.
• Neighborhood based schools reduce transportation costs and build a sense of community and ownership.
• A full day Kindergarten option is important.
• Minimize redistricting.
• Avoid costly and unreimburseable features like temporary classrooms to house students while construction is underway.
Based on these assumptions, the architects have suggested three ideas for further review:
• Renovate and/or repair Hillside and Mitchell at their present locations. This requires an expansion of each school’s footprint to meet new MSBA, educational, and building and planning board code requirements. This option would likely involve building a new and permanent school on the Mitchell site to accommodate Hillside’s population while construction takes place on the Hillside campus. After this phase of construction, Hillside students would move into their new facility and Mitchell students would move into their newer facility while the old Mitchell is torn down to make way for fields and additional parking. This option requires over 900 students to be co-located on the Mitchell campus for up to two years while construction is underway on the Hillside campus.
• Build a new Hillside Elementary School on Cricket Field, renovate Mitchell, and repurpose the existing Hillside campus for ball fields and possible school space.
In this scenario, the School Committee and Park and Recreation Commission agree to “swap” land: A new Hillside is built on Cricket and the fields are replaced on the existing Hillside campus after the school is torn down. Possible school administration and/or early childhood programming might also be planned for the site alongside the fields. In this option, students remain in their existing school building until they can be relocated off campus to the new school at Hillside while Mitchell is renovated. Using the new facility as swing space is a prudent use of taxpayers’ dollars. This option does, however, place two elementary schools (Hillside and Eliot) nearer one another, likely requiring some redistricting.
• Build a new 6th Grade Center on the DeFazio Field site; move Mitchell students to DeFazio while Mitchell is renovated; move Hillside students to High Rock or Newman; move 6th graders to DeFazio; and repurpose the Hillside campus for fields and/or additional school programming space. This option takes advantage of DeFazio, which is under partial control of the School Committee, and moves 6th graders near Pollard’s campus and ball fields. It does require a tight building design at DeFazio given space considerations, and it requires the Hillside community to be redistricted. But it does allow the Hillside campus to be used as a future school site, school administration space, or for other community programming and activities.
All of the proposed options have limitations and possibilities, and each requires further study and exploration before deciding a course of action. In fact, the School Committee will want to share this information with the MSBA and gain their perspective and feedback; the MSBA, in response, could even suggest a different plan. The architects continue their work, including cost estimates and implications for these three ideas, and they will present a final report later in June.
What is clear is that the entire Needham community—not just Hillside and Mitchell families—will need to work together on a practical and thoughtful renovation plan that potentially has broad implications for all of Needham’s students and key neighborhoods near Hillside, Mitchell, Newman, Eliot, and DeFazio and Cricket Fields. What is equally clear is that this is a community that thrives on collaboration and is willing to step up to ensure a responsible plan is developed with the MSBA and meets the needs of Needham’s students and its residents.
For additional information about these and other options studied, please visit the Needham Public Schools website and check out the News section: http://www.needham.k12.ma.us/