To the Esteemed Members of the Waltham School Committee...Do your job...

When last we met, we were talking about the elections in Waltham. Those have come and gone, and now we can tun our attention to the next big issue: the very necessary overhaul of how our school system is structured. We are, and have been for at least a decade, dealing with capacity issues in four of our six elementary schools. For as long as I have lived in Waltham we have been talking about needing to do SOMETHING. We have had meetings, we have had architects review our buildings and make reports. We have had MORE meetings, and more plans were proposed, and one even looked like it would be implemented, but then the School Committee lost its will, influenced by complaints from a handful of parents who didn't like what would happen.

We are now at a point where decisions MUST be made. We have had elections and the three incumbent SC members who ran were re-elected. The mandate is clear: Fix the problem. We have a new superintendent who spends every waking moment, and most of moments other people waste on sleep, working on the issue. Dr. Echelson took a different approach to the issue. He formed committees which looked at the issue of capacity in our schools and came up with four proposals. I met with Dr. Echelson the other day to hear from him what he thinks the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal are.

Plan A: Reorganize Elementary Grade Structure in an East/West assignment with one boundary line. Assignments to schools are made by new grade spans - PreK and 1, 2nd and 3rd, 4th and 5th in each of the three schools in each of the two halves of the city. The East side of the boundary would include Northeast, Fitzgerald and Whittemore. The West side would include McArthur, Plympton and Stanley. Each section feeds to the middle school they currently feed to.

The advantages to this plan are numerous:
     - Maintains the neighborhood school structure many families desire
     - It would create a consistent delivery of curriculum across each grade span by bringing more teachers together to teach all the students in each span.
     - Allows for more focused work on the part of the school administrators, special education specialists, coaches etc. With fewer grades in any one school, there is more opportunity to focus on delivering the services to that more narrowly defined group of students rather than across 5 or 6 grades as they currently do.
     - Additional opportunities for collaboration between teaching staff
     - Balances enrollment
     - Requires no additional staff
     - Maintains or increases diversity
     - More flexibility with class size
     - Reclaims specialty spaces
     - ELIMINATES OVERCROWDING IMMEDIATELY

This plan is by far the best plan. It addresses and solves our capacity issues immediately. It actually solves the problem for 10 years out based on population projections. It would give us the time and space to plan for an additional building which is Plan D, and is needed regardless of which of the three other proposals is adopted. But we would be able to plan that and build in less of a rush compared to adopting either B or C.

There are disadvantages to this plan, but in my estimation they do not outweigh the benefits of this plan. One complaint about Plan A is that students would move more frequently from school to school since they would spend only two years at any one school. Students generally are not going to care about that. They have to switch teachers each year anyway. They are more concerned with whether or not they are with their friends. The main disadvantage to this plan is it will require creating a staggered start time schedule and busing schedules and will cost more in transportation costs. According to Dr. Echelson, this is a structure used by three of the most successful school systems in MA, two of which are Hopkington and Weston. These are communities I have personally known families to relocate to precisely for the school system. It would be outstanding to bring that sort of opportunity to our city for our children.

Plan B: This is redistricting. It redraws the boundary lines along more natural lines and balances the numbers across all of the elementary school. The advantages to this proposal are similar to A.
     - Maintains neighborhood schools, balancing the enrollment, diversity
     - This plan moves the least number of students, moving them to the schools with expansion potential.

The disadvantages are that the proposal moves more students than a previous redistricting proposal indicated. Schools which are at capacity now will reach capacity again in the near future and will need additional space. We could need modulars at one or more of the schools, and the only schools that have the space to do that are Northeast and McArthur. There is not a guarantee that we would get specialist spaces back at all of the schools as well. We would need that additional building (Plan D) to be done sooner rather than later.

Plan C: This is the least attractive option. It would change the elementary school structure to PreK through 4th, and the middle school structure to 5th through 8th. While this plan would immediately relieve the capacity issues at the elementary school level, it would immediately create capacity problems at the middle schools and require modulars to be used at the middle schools immediately. There are also concerns about having 5th grade students attending school with older 8th grade students. Dr. Echelson thinks that this is not a HUGE concern, but parents perceive it could present issues. As a parent I understand these concerns. It will also require the hiring of additional staff, spending more money on buses and permanent modulars. This is the least logical option in my opinion.

Plan D: New building. This option is actually required in addition to selecting one of the other three. It was never intended to be a stand alone option. It is needed, and the SC has already voted to move forward with the planning of a building. This building should be built to be as flexible a space as possible, able to serve any population from PreK to 8th grade as our populations fluctuate.

So here we are. The time is NOW. On Dec. 2nd the SC will vote. NOT making a choice is not an option. I hope they all know this. We arrived at this place once before, with the previous superintendent. And the SC stopped. They made no decision. We were left with no resolution of our capacity issues. Students, teachers and administrators are still dealing with over crowding at Stanley, Plympton, Whittemore and Fitzgerald. We have lost our specialist spaces at these schools. The people who suffer as a result of this inaction are the STUDENTS. The very constituents the SC is elected to serve. That is inexcusable.

The SC has 3 proposals they need to choose from to resolve the issues. There have been forums for parents and staff to hear about the proposals and to speak in favor of one or more. There are two more, one today at 3:30pm at McDevitt and the second on Dec. 1st at 6:30pm at the Kennedy auditorium. If you have not attended one, and wish to have time to hear from Dr. Echelson and express your support for a proposal, attend one. If you cannot attend one, you should review the proposals, here.

It is important. Possibly the most important decision anyone on the SC will make in their time serving. NOT making a choice is not an option. I would like the best educational option to be chosen, which appears to be Plan A. But that seems unlikely, because people are not comfortable thinking outside the box, taking chances and making BIG change. But when the chief educator of our school system, a caring and highly intelligent man whose sole agenda appears to be to make our school system the absolute best system it can possibly be, favors a plan, you have to accept that the plan is a good one. So I would LOVE to see Plan A happen.

In the absence of that, Plan B is the logical next best option. I recognize my child would not be moved under this plan, but that doesn't make it any less of a good plan. It allows for relief of the capacity issues in the Fall of 2016 without any other major changes needed. It will not alleviate the need for changes again once the new building is built, but Dr. Echelson is committed to making sure the students who moved the first time would not be moved again.

But most importantly, a decision needs to be made. A vote will happen on Dec. 2nd, and none of the options includes making NO choice. There can be no delays while more information is gathered. There can be no putting it off until we hear from more people. People have been given the information, been asked for their opinions. It's time to choose. So do your job, esteemed members of the Waltham School Committee. DO.YOUR.JOB. 

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Liz, how does option A maintain the neighborhood school structure? My understanding of Plan A is that students would attend their neighborhood school for only 2 years instead of 5 years as under the current model (excluding those that both attend the public pre-k and live in the neighborhood where the pre-k will be based).

    Based on my understanding of the proposals, Plan A eliminates much of the neighborhood school structure, Plan B maintains the neighborhood structure but shifts what is considered the "neighborhood school" for some, Plan C diminishes the neighborhood school structure by removing 5th grade.

    With respect to Plan D, it annoyed me that the School Committee proposed a motion to establish an elementary school building committee (at Tarallo's urging) but the mayor convinced them that the high school building committee should take on that additional task. Two steps forward, one step back.

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  3. Hi Tim. First of all I think you have me confused with my friend Liz McCarthy. I'm Michele Kosboth. Nice to meet you. You are correct, in terms of neighborhood schools in the truest sense, kids would only go to the school that has been typically associated with their neighborhood for two years. However, I don't know that this is as important to some as it might be to others. We live closer to Plympton than we do Stanley, but because of how they drew the "neighborhood" lines, we go to Stanley. This is probably true for many in Waltham. The way I see it, Plan A actually affords kids to go to school with more children from a broader swath of Waltham over a longer period of time, allowing for them to build community and friendships outside of what is currently deemed their neighborhood school. I see that as a HUGE bonus.

    Plan D should have always been presented as an option that would happen along side one of the others. It wasn't a stand alone plan. I think the committee can take on both buildings. Both have to happen. I think the people that are on the committee already are very well suited to this task. It would muddy the waters to have two committees. One set of eyes looking at all the issues around building school buildings, including budgets and timelines.

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  4. Michele, sorry, you are correct. I followed a link from Liz. Thank you for helping to raise awareness of this important decision.

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  5. Thank you for this perspective Michele. As a Waltham resident who is not a parent I often feel like I can't get clear information on what these different options mean and how they'll directly impact families and kids. I really appreciate this write up!

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  6. I agree that the SC has to make a decision. I think parents with more than one child have trouble supporting Plan A. Besides the extra 1/2 million a year, you really didn't hit on the disadvantages that most multi-children families have with Plan A. To me the disadvantages would be trying to drop them off or drive them to school either as a scheduled process or an adhoc process like Math Olympiad or JBA. Also regarding Weston, their 3 elementary schools are very close to each other so it is really not a good example of how this plan could work. I, personally, like plan C especially if you make McDevitt a 5th and sixth grade school and Kennedy a 7th and 8th. I don't like 6th graders with 8th graders. Also there are some sports teams that is only played at one middle school. Often the other school's attendees can not make it because there isn't a bus.

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  7. Plan D should be a new Middle School in the South End before a new Elementary School. I believe according to the Asst Super the middle school need comes first.

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