Schools toured by map, spreadsheet

NASHUA – Room by room. School by school.

Members of a facilities committee charged with gauging how effectively space is being used in the city’s schools pored over data reports, spreadsheets and school maps at their meeting Monday night.

The committee, made up of school board members, aldermen, school district staff and administrators and one parent representative, is supposed to come up with recommendations of any changes that could improve how space is used in the schools.

This was the group’s second meeting, and Superintendent Christopher Hottel provided members with maps of all 12 of the district’s elementary schools, as well as a spreadsheet of how each room is being used in each building.

To start, Hottel walked members through the map of Amherst Street Elementary School, describing how each room is used. The school has 28 rooms, he said, of which 14 are used for classroom instruction.

The rest of the rooms are designated for art, the library, music, professional development, reading and intensive needs students, among other things.

Is there empty space in the school? Janet Valeri, principal of the school for four years, doesn’t think so.

“I think every room is used in that building,” said Valeri, who was transferred to be principal of Ledge Street Elementary School starting next year.

Out of the discussion came a question raised by Alderman-at-Large David Deane about the need for a “parent resource room” on the second floor of Amherst Street School.

The room was marked as a grade four classroom on the map but was converted to the resource room when the classroom was no longer needed.

Valeri said the room is used during the days for classes for parents, such as how to help with instruction at home and English classes for non-English speaking parents. The PTO also uses the room, she said.

“Quite a lot happens in that room,” she said.

Deane requested a list of the activities in the room for the committee’s next meeting.
According to the spreadsheet Hottel provided at the meeting, there are 388 rooms in the 12 schools, five of which are labeled “empty.” There are two empty rooms at Charlotte Avenue and Sunset Heights schools and one at Broad Street School.

The 388 total rooms include everything from classrooms to cafeterias. Of the 388 rooms, 236 are designated for classroom instruction, kindergarten through grade five.

Amherst Street is one of only two schools with a parent resource room, Fairgrounds Elementary being the other.

Amherst Street also has two rooms set aside for professional development. No other elementary schools have rooms specifically for professional development.
Broad Street is the only elementary school with a science room, according to the spreadsheet.

The process used at Monday night’s meeting was arduous, as the committee was only able to get through two schools – Amherst Street and Mount Pleasant Elementary School – before the meeting adjourned after two hours.

The committee’s next meeting isn’t until Sept. 15, and the strategic process timeline has the committee making its recommendations to the steering committee at some point in the fall.

The committee is an offshoot of the school district’s overall strategic planning process, which is being managed by Future Management Systems of Beverly, Mass.
The contract with the firm was for between $25,000 and $30,000. The goal is to have a plan when looking ahead to the future for the district.

The concept of redistricting has been discussed at both of the facilities committee’s meetings.

School board member Robert Hallowell said the committee must first decide what the problem is before deciding whether redrawing school boundaries is really necessary.

Redistricting could be done to try to improve test scores, to better utilize space or to have a more equal balance of students among the schools when considering factors such as socioeconomics and race, Hallowell said. “All three of those are very different reasons,” he said.

There are wide disparities among the elementary schools in the makeup of their enrollments.

At some of the inner-city elementary schools, more than two-thirds of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program, used as an indicator of poverty.

At other schools, like Bicentennial and Main Dunstable, only 10 percent of students are eligible for the program. The district rate is 31 percent.

But whether redistricting is the answer remains to be seen.

Ward 9 Alderman Jeff Cox said it is impossible to please everyone when redistricting. Some in the city are still bitter about the last time it was done more than 20 years ago, he said.

“It’s never equitable,” he said.

One of the documents the committee is using as a resource is the facilities study conducted by the New England School Development Council. The study cost $27,980 and includes enrollment projections and whether buildings are under or over capacity.

But as parent representative Lisa Law pointed out, the study dates back to the 2006-07 school year, and the real estate and economic situation has changed since then, which could skew the data.