Space is at a premium in Reading’s five elementary schools.
District-wide, those schools are at 96.5 percent capacity, a consultant on school space planning has told the School Committee. Capacity depends on the use of the space, he said.
Enrollment isn’t the only issue.
What’s also taking space in those schools, consultant Frank Locker of Locker Educational Planning said, are programs -- from special education to all-day kindergarten to a coming, more hands-on way of teaching math and science. Full-day kindergarten is growing here and throughout the Commonwealth, he said, and changes are coming in special education.
So what’s the town to do?
Locker presented the School Committee last month with a series of options, both short and long-term.
They range, at the extremes, from the superintendent assigning some students to an other-than-neighborhood school to avoid a too-large class to building a new elementary school.
Locker also included the town’s pre-school RISE program in his lists of considerations and options.
Using enrollment numbers based on births to town residents and elementary school enrollments five years later, Locker described enrollment for the next 15 years as “nearly flat.” But individual schools have “blips” of students in different grades, he said, over the desired class size.
Based on new housing in town and the “rollover” of homes with no school-age children to families with elementary schoolers, enrollment could increase at a “high” rate, he said, by two percent a year, or a total of 200 students in 2021.
Locker said he didn’t know which figures would prevail.
The town’s first consideration, Locker said, is to house elementary school students. If high enrollment projections come to pass, he said, they would “trump” program needs.
The superintendent is already assigning some students new to Reading not to the school in their neighborhood but to one with more space, Superintendent John Doherty told the audience.
Short-term – that’s five years -- students of different ages could be placed in the same classroom or class size could be increased for a certain length of time. Art and music rooms could be reassigned as classrooms and RISE could leave a classroom at .
Building-wise, the school system might add modular classrooms at the elementary schools; or for the RISE program at the ; or convert the “break out pits” into classroom use.
Long-term, three of five elementary schools – , and -- could be enlarged.
Or the RISE program could move to its own building, either with or without centralized kindergarten. That could free kindergarten classrooms at the elementary schools.
Or a new elementary school could be built to house pre-schoolers through fifth graders. That option is the most costly, Locker said, but also the most comprehensive.
The Wood End School opened seven years ago. Part of the argument for the new school was to allow dedicated art and music space in all the town’s elementary schools, Locker noted.
Programs like all-day kindergarten and special education have changed since then, Doherty said.
“This is a study of nuance,” Locker emphasized, based on many small scale and interrelated issues.
Adding to the challenge: all the town’s elementary schools are on small sites, he said.
The pre-school RISE program is housed primarily at the high school, and in one classroom at Wood End. The program is most effective in one location, Locker said. The program is not just for students with special needs, emphasized Director of School Finance and Operation Mary DeLai.
Each school space option has both pro’s and con’s, Locker told the School Committee and audience which included selectmen and Finance Committee members. His 50-plus page report lists pluses and minuses for each option.
Limiting the number of all-day kindergarteners, for example, would have financial implications, said Doherty.
Locker asked about space at both St. Agnes and Austin Prep. Neither would have details about available space soon, he said. Commercial space would be expensive, he said, to renovate.
The School Committee will discuss the report at its retreat in late July.