For the past several years, the growing student enrollment numbers in Watertown, particularly at the elementary level, along with the demands of good quality 21st Century general and special education, have placed increasing space pressures on our school buildings. We have reached a point where our three elementary schools are out of space. Addressing these space issues has been on the back burner for far too long; we need to make major progress in the near term. To date, we have placed the responsibility for managing these space constraints and for maintaining safe and effective learning environments on the school principals and faculty. They have done and continue to do a tremendous job -- showing remarkable flexibility, creativity, and care to try and give all students a positive educational experience.
We have reached a point where the physical space limits exceed their ability to solve the problem in both the immediate and longer term at the school level. There are several classes in each Elementary school that are projected to be above Watertown's unofficial class size guidelines (18 – 24 students depending on grade level) next year, and quite a few that are right on the cusp of turning into a situation like what the Cunniff is facing right now. However, the need for more space in the Elementary schools goes beyond the class size issue. Children are learning in spaces that were not designed to be classrooms; staff are forced to share small closet-like spaces; and Special Education classes are taking place in odd spaces. In this context, it is unfair to continue to expect the individual schools’ administration and faculty to carry the responsibility for managing the problem, and it is not ok to just "survive" this situation, as one Cunniff parent said recently. We now need leadership at the system level -- the WPS Administration and School Committee -- to take the responsibility for addressing this challenge by making clear and timely decisions about a way forward, making the necessary requests of the Town Manager and Town Council to get funds allocated before the end of this fiscal year, and contracting for a scope of work that will provide additional space before the beginning of the school year in September.
Watertown Strong Schools (WSS) has made overcrowding and space issues a top priority for parental and community involvement, and we need as many people as possible sharing their views and concerns on this issue with school and town leaders.
This challenge has immediate-, medium- and long-term aspects that need to be addressed as part of an integrated strategy. WPS Administration has just released an RFP for a master plan study, which, combined with a current study of enrollment trends, will be the main path for addressing the medium- to long-term space needs. Watertown Strong Schools will follow this process very closely and continue advocating for strong involvement of parent and community representatives at every step of the process.
To address the immediate space issues for the upcoming 2016-17 school year, we want to communicate very clear expectations as follows:
- First, the WPS Administration must present a specific plan for addressing space issues at the Elementary schools in very short order. WSS strongly favors modular classrooms as the best and least disruptive option and recommends that WPS move forward with a phased plan that would bring 4-6 classroom spaces into the Elementary schools over the next two academic years.
- Second, this plan is submitted to School Committee for approval before the end of May and a request for funding the plan is submitted to the Town Council before the end of the fiscal year (June 30).
- Third, that this approved and funded plan has a clear work plan that has begun implementation with a goal of having additional space available at the beginning of the school year in September 2016.
The following are ways that you can help further the cause, stay informed, get involved, and have your voice heard:
- If you have not already, please fill out this short survey.
- Email your thoughts and concerns to the School Committee and Town Council. Contact information can be found here.
- Send an email to James Cairns at firstname.lastname@example.org to join our Overcrowding/Space working group.
- Subscribe to the WSS email list here (scroll to the bottom of the page).
- Like our Facebook page for up-to-the-minute information.