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Architect/mom seeks other space-planning options

The following statement by Megan Panzano, mother of a preschool student enrolled at Learn to Grow, in the former Gibbs Jr. High, was presented to the School Committee on Thursday, Oct. 8, at Town Hall:

My husband and I both work full time and we rely on this program to make many aspects of our family’s life possible.

My husband and I are homeowners near Arlington Center, and we selected Learn to Grow both for the strong educational base it would provide to our son as well as for its specific geographic location, within walking distance from home and directly in the center of the neighborhoods that feed into the Thompson Elementary School, where our son will eventually be a student. We saw the location of our son’s preschool as a critical community-building catalyst for our family – allowing our son to develop a strong group of local neighborhood friends that he could track through the Arlington school system with as well as enabling our family to share roots with other families likewise balancing professional and parental priorities in our incredible town of Arlington.

I’m an architect, a practicing designer and design critic of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where I teach architecture studio. As both an architect and as a member of the Arlington community with a child already in the early stages of his preparatory elementary-school education at Learn to Grow, I am concerned with a number of aspects consistent across all of the space-planning schemes proposed at the School Committee Meeting held on Sept 24.

• First, that the Gibbs building, an older and relatively small building with significant square-footage limitations in its current form, was required in the space-planning of 3 of 4 proposals without greatly impacting the capacity challenges of the elementary school system at large.

• Second, that all schemes limited the scope of producing additional educational space, critical in our school system, to modular buildings in either multiyear, “temporary” or permanent service for the creation of class room spaces to meet the projected student populations. An expensive proposition for modulars that, through the longevity of their required presence in any scheme, would require superior finishing to make them truly functional spaces in New England throughout the duration of the school year (including additional insulation and more permanent and durable building enclosure materials among other costly details).

• Lastly and most troubling to me last meeting was the absence of any option that proposed the expansion of core shared spaces in the schools -- cafeterias, gymnasiums, auditorium spaces and libraries -- spaces also critical to meeting the functional and educational needs of any school location for students of any grade level. Modulars add classrooms only, but what about these core communal spaces as well?

I ask, where are other space-planning options for the expansion of the schools in our system that would meet the projected capacity needs of both classrooms as well as core communal spaces?
Renovation proposals that permanently expand the footprint of existing buildings -- both classroom and core spaces on site -- is but one of these.

Might some of these options please be investigated that would focus on providing both classroom and core space growth on school sites, allowing the many programs currently in the Gibbs Building to remain located there, at the critical core of the community that they serve.

This viewpoint was published Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015.

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