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How returning Gibbs to classrooms could be part of the solution

Enrollment if we did nothing through 2020

I started my analysis by looking at where we would be with enrollment if we did nothing from now through 2020. Then I made the problem worse by pushing the sixth grade back to all elementary schools, which was how Arlington ran schools through I believe 1989.It is how many communities, such as Acton-Boxborough, Brookline (which goes through eighth) and Pembroke, continue to run their districts (see tab 3 in DESE School Data spreadsheet, linked at end of this column).

Putting the sixth grade back to the elementary utilizes the space in the Peirce and Stratton, which would then come close to capacity, but creates shortfalls in the other five schools. The greatest shortfall would then be in the eastern half of town, with Hardy (-7), Thompson (-9) and Bishop (-6), with available space determined by page 3 here >> 

If we put the Gibbs back online as a K-6 school and assume it would have 24 classrooms per the September HMFH study, the School Committee could then redistrict the three schools in the eastern half of town to relieve that problem in its entirety, with a small Mugar firewall, or the School Committee could shift the SLC into Gibbs, creating space in Brackett, Dallin or Stratton, or the School Committee could spread the "empty" classrooms  across the four schools.

This leaves a problem with the Brackett (-2) and Dallin (-2). The interesting thing here is that the Ottoson Middle School resides in the Brackett/Dallin buffer zone, where these kids would go for seventh and eight grade anyway, so the solution could be that these kids go to Ottoson for sixth, keeping them in their neighborhood and limiting the number of transitions. As shown in tab two, this would keep the school under its capacity of 1,050 as the new projected capacity would be 1,018 in 2020.  

Other district confugurations

As you probably already know, Massachusetts school districts do many things to bridge their enrollment issues. Below I pulled a sampling of what goes on in Massachusetts from the DESE report I have on tab 3: 

Acton-Boxborough has six grade K-6 schools, one 7-8 school, and one high school. 

Barnstable High starts in 8th grade. The middle school is 6-7. 

Belmont has four K-4, one 5-8, one 9-12. 

Boston Latin School starts in 7th grade. 

Brookline has no middle schools. All schools are K-8, then BHS is 9-12.    

Duxbury has townwide schools, K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12. 

Needham has five grade K-5 elementary schools, a 6th grade school, a 7-8 school, and a 9-12 high school. 

Shrewsbury has a very interesting format. Most kids go to a townwide kindergarten (236/355), followed by four schools serving 1-4, one 5-6 school, one 7-8 school, and one 9-12 high school.

Somerville has five K-8 schools, one per-K / K school, one K-6 school, and one 9-12 high school. 

Westborough has three K-3 elementary, one 4-6, one 7-8, one 9-12. 

Upside re future construction

One upside to this plan is it puts us in better position if we need to construct more elementary school space in the future, because we can pick the elementary school to add onto, since we would have eight schools dispersed more evenly across the town, versus the current arrangement of only two schools east of Pleasant Street.           
In December, when I was working through how we would repopulate a Gibbs Middle School (see spreadsheet No. 3 at the end of this column), I started to realize that you couldn't do it all at once, because you wouldn't want to rip apart already established cohorts.

This lead to the logical choice of populating the school by taking the fifth and sixth graders from Thompson and Hardy in year one, adding the fourth grade in year two (when they become fifth graders), then letting that group of three grades hold in year three as sixth, seventh and eighth.
The advantage to this approach is that it stopped the need for a Thompson or Hardy addition for two years, while allowing for a multiyear rebuild of the school. 

If Gibbs were K-6

If Gibbs were a K-6 school, you would presumably need to work a similar strategy, populating it first as a fifth-/sixth-grade middle school for East Arlington only (Thompson, Hardy, probably sixth grade from Bishop) but also insert a kindergarten cohort, possible even a first-grade cohort depending on how the 2017-2018 school year was established, and allow for the school to naturally build over multiple years.

Several years down the road when you reach the inflection point of Gibbs increasing and Thompson/Hardy/Bishop decreasing, those schools hold their fifth grade one year and then their sixth grade the next. 

If we wanted to get creative, we could assume that the $350,000 to $400,000 we’re going to spend on modular classrooms in 2017-2018 for Thompson is inevitable, invested capital, and use that money to induce the Arlington Center for the Arts and Kelliher to leave Gibbs by next Sept. 1, withe hope of finding them a replacement space.

At that point, we would focus on a phased remodel, where we take control of and have ready, eight of the 24 Gibbs classrooms by September 2017 (plus the gym and cafeteria), and our control grows proportionally each year as we renovate sections of the building. 

Utilizing Available Space Before Building New Space

The following analysis is a memo on a 6-8 theme that Carman sent to various Task Force members in late 2015.

For purposes of this analysis I focused on the following data points:

-          The school department’s current district map. 

-          Appendix C and D from the HMFH Architects, Inc. space report, which details the space in each building for school year 2014-2015.

-          The school facility use analysis provided by school administration to the Enrollment Task Force.

-          The updated McKibbon numbers that I used to understand class size requirements.

As we all know, most of the projected growth over the next 10 years is in East Arlington in two abutting districts - Thompson and Hardy.  At the same time, most of the free classroom capacity is in northwest Arlington in the Peirce and Stratton, two districts that abut and are projecting minimal growth in population and required classrooms over the next 10 years per the revised McKibbon projection. The remaining three elementary districts – Bishop, Brackett and Dallin appear to be on the edge of capacity but not tipping over.  This causes an odd geographic problem that needs to be managed before any new space is built. 

Solidifying the Five Elementary Schools that are not in East Arlington

The updated 10 year McKibbon projections show enrollment growth at Bishop, but no significant growth in the other four non-East Arlington schools.  This means that the town can take steps to reinforce these five schools to ensure that they don’t run over capacity.

Prior to the Enrollment Task Force beginning its work, school administration had considered moving the SLC program at Brackett to Peirce, which would have served to free up two classrooms in Brackett. This remains an important shift because Brackett buffers two near capacity districts – Dallin and Bishop, while Peirce buffers near capacity Dallin, and Stratton which has excess space. Having two districts with capacity that buffer each other is not good policy.

After the Brackett’s Structured Learning Center is moved to Peirce, the buffer zones for the five non-East Arlington schools need to be expanded.  We should now have enough available classrooms between Brackett, Stratton and Peirce to manage any actual enrollments that occur above forecast in those five schools.  

Solving the Enrollment Challenge in East Arlington

The Enrollment Task Force has spent a significant amount of time discussing population growth in East Arlington, but has not asked anyone to determine WHY the school age population in East Arlington is growing so quickly.  It seems critically important to understand why enrollment is growing quickly in East Arlington versus just taking for granted that it is.  Understanding why the population is growing quickly will help bring about the correct answer.

DON’T FORGET THE HARDY.  Almost the entire discussion of school enrollment has focused on Thompson, when the Hardy appears to be on a similar trend with cohorts of 80 students replacing smaller cohorts. The difference appears to be that the Hardy is a slightly larger building and their growth pattern is trailing the Thompson, but if projections prove correct the Hardy will need additional space on the same magnitude as Thompson.

DON’T FORGET THE OTTOSON.  Though it has yet to be proven, we are told that the Ottoson is at capacity and we will need to add modular classrooms beginning in September 2017.  

WHAT ABOUT THE GIBBS? A working assumption is that the Gibbs should be reclaimed for use as a town-wide single grade classroom, i.e. 5th and be put online in full in September 2018.  Having had time to listen to the discussion while gathering and analyzing data, I think this is the wrong decision. If we focused on taking back this school in phases and reopening it as the Gibbs Middle School, which is what I believe you would do for a new middle school (versus breaking up a cohort), we can address our pressing needs now while delaying others to obtain more data.  

The following chart shows the classroom needs of Thompson and Hardy over the next five years, when both level off in their enrollment growth per the revised McKibbon report.

2015-2016 2016-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020
Classroom Needs Through Peak Enrollment    
Thompson 20 22 23 24 24
Hardy 19 21 22 23 24
Difference Between Available Classrooms and Need  
Thompson -1 -3 -4 -5 -5
Hardy 2 0 -1 -2 -3

Assuming that we could control 8 of the 24 Gibbs classrooms this coming fall (September 2016) and our control grows proportionally each year as we renovate sections of the building, we would be able to delay a Thompson, Hardy and Ottoson addition for multiple years as we populated the new Gibbs Middle School:    

Current Grade
2016-2017 2017-2018 2018-2019 2019-2020 2020-2021
Thompson 4th Grade 49 49 49 49  
Thompson 3rd Grade 81 81 81 81 81
Thompson 2nd Grade   73 73 73 73
Thompson 1st Grade     81 81 81
Hardy 4th Grade   71 71 71  
Hardy 3rd Grade   71 71 71 71
Hardy 2nd Grade     67 67 67
Hardy 1st Grade         81
  130 345 493 493 454
Yellow shading means elementary school grade (4th or 5th)  

The advantage to this approach is it would give us the opportunity to gather more information on Mugar and the cause of the growth, while spending money on a sustainable asset.  I also think it’s politically palatable as students in the transition would be getting four or five years at the Gibbs.  As a child my elementary school was renovated and we went to the Middle School for 5th grade, along with the 4th graders.  It was a positive to be in our future Middle School for an extra year.  Of course, the big challenge is could we do the renovations around the existing school so as not to displace them during the three year project.

If we could make this work (somehow), we would be able to delay a decision on the Hardy and Thompson for two years, gathering information the whole time.  The Ottoson matter would presumably be settled.

This viewpoint reflects the opinion of the author, Dean Carman. It was published Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016.
What do you think? Your opinions about this plan are welcome at the comment window at the bottom of this page.

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