A space crunch is expected at all three elementary schools this fall as all students return to in-person learning. Available classrooms at Fort River and Wildwood schools were reduced from 27 to 15 at each school because of physical changes made during the pandemic, while space has always been tight at Crocker Farm school.
“Things have changed significantly in 20 years with respect to what you need in a building,” Crocker Farm Principal Derek Shea told the School Committee on June 8. “We’re going to struggle to find space for everyone that needs it. It’s going to be very tight; it has been for a number of years.”
Although the situation at Crocker Farm is not quite as severe as at Fort River and Wildwood, Superintendent Michael Morris said it remains a challenge. “I don’t think the space needs at Crocker Farm have been comfortable for years,” Morris said. According to Shea, 10 years ago there were 245 students at Crocker Farm; in the last couple of years the school has held around a hundred additional students. “The school wasn’t really built to house 345 students,” Shea said.
A study of Crocker Farm and what renovations would be needed if/when Amherst’s three elementary schools are consolidated into two buildings was presented to the School Committee and Town Council last summer. A renovation and addition that would address all building repair needs and accommodate the projected kindergarten-through-fifth-grade population of 375 students in a consolidation scenario was estimated at $19.75 million. Funding for this project has not been included in the 5-year capital plan.
At Fort River and Wildwood, renovations last summer that converted each “quad” into two rooms (now referred to as “halfsies”) removed 12 general education classrooms at each school. Morris said these changes have broad implications on space, usage, and instructional models, and has forced the principals to be creative in planning how to accommodate the projected 18 classes at Fort River and 20 classes at Wildwood this fall, and how to provide arts instruction and special education services. (See floor plan maps page 6-8.)
For art, music, and technology classes, both schools will have a “push-in” model whereby the specialist teachers will travel to individual classrooms with their materials on a cart since their dedicated rooms will be in use as classrooms. Fort River Principal Diane Chamberlain said these teachers will be based in the library when they are not teaching.
Although the quad renovations have led to a challenging space crunch, there have been some positive impacts. “Reducing the number of walls supports the district’s mission of inclusion,” said Chamberlain. Students who were previously pulled out from their regular classrooms for special education services can now be facilitated within the classroom, offering greater inclusion, she said. Referring to the halfsies, Chamberlain said “they are really large, beautiful classrooms,” adding that noise from other classes is no longer an issue.
Having to use cafeteria space for classrooms is less than ideal however, and has a financial implication. With cafeterias repurposed, and with continuing COVID safety protocols that limit interaction between classes, students have lunch in their classrooms, which necessitates hiring additional staff for supervision. Morris said that the district intends to use COVID-related stimulus funds to cover these costs. The elementary district recently learned they will be receiving $1.5 million in the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER3) funds which will be available for use through September 2024. This is in addition to the $2.7 million already allocated to the elementary district through other COVID-related grants.
Renting or purchasing full-size mobile classrooms was considered as a way of easing the space challenges and would be an eligible use of stimulus funds, but at an estimated cost of $300,000 each, Morris recommended against it. He also did not recommend combining smaller classes (and having teachers co-teach) as a way to reduce the number of classrooms needed. “I feel strongly that we do not increase our class size above school committee guidelines,” he said. “Individualized instruction can’t happen in a class size of 25-26 students.”
At Crocker Farm, space for providing special education services has been an ongoing challenge. For example, Shea said, one full-time and two part-time speech therapists share an office, sometimes delivering services to two or three students at the same time, which is not ideal. The computer room, which previously held a number of desktop computers for student instruction, will be repurposed as a multi-use space for small group instruction, instrumental music, and meetings. With chromebook laptops now available for all students, Morris said there is less of a need for a separate computer space. Instrumental music instruction will also take place on the stage in the “cafetorium” when it is not in use for lunch.
Pressure To Move Sixth Graders to Middle School in Fall 2022
The space crunch across the district has made a move of the sixth grade to the middle school more pressing. School Committee Chair Allison McDonald posed what she termed a “provocative” question to the committee and Morris: “is it really even a decision?” she asked, implying that they must move sixth grade to the middle school. “If this isn’t a choice about two equals, then let’s say it,” McDonald said.
Committee member Peter Demling said he didn’t want to be “disingenuous with the public” in presenting the sixth grade move as a true choice. Referring to the elementary school building project that he hopes will address both Fort River and Wildwood, Demling said, “the 575-student K-5 is the only realistic practical option, and because there is no other place for the sixth grade to go, they have to move to the middle school.” The committee plans to launch a community engagement effort in the fall that could frame the sixth grade move as required. Morris acknowledged this framing would be “more honest” since “the status quo is not an option.”
“The current space plans are very much a short-term solution,” he said. “I do think this is the best option for next year, but I don’t think it is a sustainable option for more than one year.”
Committee member Kerry Spitzer said, however, that moving sixth grade to the middle school is not going to get them back to where they were pre-Covid, at least at Fort River and Wildwood. The dual language program at Fort River, which will grow to three grades this fall, requires three classes per grade, and at Wildwood, enrollment has typically necessitated three classes per grade. 15 classrooms will still be three-too-few if there are 18 K-5 classes at each school.
“Yes, moving sixth grade won’t solve all our problems but it will really help,” Morris said, noting that three fewer classes would likely eliminate the need to use a cafeteria for a classroom and would reduce the overall number of students and adults in the buildings.
More Space for Preschool at Crocker Farm
At Crocker Farm, moving sixth grade will relieve some of the space issues, at least until the school will have to accommodate an increased enrollment once the Fort River/Wildwood building project is complete. This fall, an additional classroom within the building will be allocated to the district-wide preschool program for a total of six. This is still insufficient for their needs, according to Shea. Morris said the district has enough students with special needs for five preschool classrooms, and the children need more space to take breaks from the group and work on self-regulation. According to Morris, the preschool program leadership has been advocating for more space for a long time and he doesn’t anticipate the need for space to slow in the next few years.
A study by Kristen Hayes Consulting in December 2019 that explored expansion of early childhood (birth to five years old) programming in Amherst reported inadequate space at Crocker Farm for preschool-aged children to engage in therapy or have a quiet, calming space, and identified a need for providing full-day childcare for children from birth to 3 years. A follow-up report by Hayes is expected by June 11 which could have implications for the preschool program at Crocker Farm and space needs for care for children from birth to five. Morris told the school committee that he will briefly present Hayes’ work on June 14, in advance of a joint meeting of the Amherst, Pelham and Regional School Committees. Yet to be discussed is whether the preschool would remain at Crocker Farm when a consolidated Fort River/Wildwood school is built or if it will be relocated.