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School Committee selects 3-grade configuration for Elmwood replacement

by | Feb 3, 2023 | Education, Featured: Education

The Hopkinton School Committee on Thursday voted to have a Grades 2-3-4 configuration for the proposed Elmwood School project, citing cost savings and the ability to address needs system-wide to address growing enrollment.

However, member Holly Morand abstained from voting, saying she couldn’t bring herself to approve the change after hearing some teachers’ concerns.

Morand started the discussion by apologizing to teachers for not having done “due diligence” in listening to feedback, particularly from Hopkins School educators.

She said it was expressed that the district shouldn’t “break something that works well” while fixing something else.

Member Lya Batlle-Rafferty, who also serves on the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC-2), said the designers have been making changes as they go along based on what concerns are raised. When they start specifically designing interior spaces, she said, educators will have opportunities to weigh in.

Chair Nancy Cavanaugh said they are not at a stage yet where decisions are made on things like windows, exits and entrances and the number of cafeterias. She noted architect Perkins Eastman is working with sketches, not finished architectural plans right now.

Batlle-Rafferty said issues like Americans with Disabilities Act considerations, safety, traffic and more are being examined “intensively” by the building committee during the process.

Vice chair Amanda Fargiano noted that the plans must adhere to the requirements laid out in the district’s educational plan and received reassurance from Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh that was the case.

Member Jenn Devlin said she is confident all the issues can be worked through and the various changes ultimately would solve many problems.

“Let’s switch the narrative here. We’re going to be OK,” Devlin said.

The superintendent said that as long as fifth- and sixth-graders have the same bell schedule, fifth-grade teachers can continue using a model whereby they teach math/science or English-language arts/social studies while sixth-grade teachers each have one specialty. That discrepancy in models was one concern voiced.

Some sixth-grade teachers also expressed reluctance to switch buildings. The superintendent said by 2027, it was possible the educators could be accommodated if openings are available and moved to teach a different grade. Although nothing can be guaranteed at this point, Carol Cavanaugh said, “I want them to be happy.”

Director of Finance Susan Rothermich said reconfiguring to three grades could cut down on buses “chasing each other across neighborhoods and duplicating routes.” More buses would be needed at the middle and high school levels than elementary, she said, depending on the site chosen.

It could also mean more buses available for after-school sports, a current deficit the district has, Rothermich said.

Batlle-Rafferty said many school districts have K-5 or K-6 models feeding into upper grades, so Grades 2, 3 and 4 together is not unusual but “the norm.” She also emphasized the fiscal consideration of saving $15 million because the Massachusetts School Building Authority would reimburse for an extra grade.

Morand said she appreciates the feedback from educators, adding, “You can’t put a price on the magic that has been Hopkinton.”

Other members spoke about the necessity of working with other town departments and ensuring the town is not put in a position of losing its ability to borrow.

Nancy Cavanaugh said she loves Hopkins teachers as well and wants to work with them on addressing their concerns as the building additions develop.

Fargiano said another advantage of a three-grade configuration is it allows the district to relieve enrollment growth at the other grades. She said that the town’s growth actually has been “beautiful and wonderful” and has allowed the community to have a “phenomenal blend and create a richer tapestry.”

In abstaining, Morand noted she wished she had the same confidence and assurance the other members felt. “I have to look myself in the mirror,” she said.

Request to travel raises equity concerns

The committee postponed voting on an initial request for up to 14 high school students to participate in a Global Leadership Summit from July 3-15, 2024. The study tour program in Iceland, Denmark and Germany centers around the theme “The Impact of Water on Society.”

Concerns were raised by Batlle-Rafferty about the approximate cost of $7,000 per student. She said it is prohibitive for students whose families cannot afford to send them, creating inequity.

“It feels uncomfortable that one tier of students can go and others can’t,” she said.

Latchkey kids with working parents don’t have the same time to raise funds for this type of opportunity, she added.

Carol Cavanaugh explained that unlike something like a class trip to Nature’s Classroom, there is no financial aid fund to assist. She pointed out it is held during a summer month, and other trips of this nature to South America, China and Normandy were approved in the past.

Fargiano said she appreciated the educational component of the trip and wondered if one of the 14 available slots could be filled by a scholarship from a community organization.

Morand said there would always be instances where inequity happens, such as with medically fragile students.

The vote was postponed as Batlle-Rafferty expressed the wish for more feedback and discussion on a plan to address inequities.

The committee did approve a number of requests involving student travel including the Nature’s Classroom Grade 6 trips to Freedom, New Hampshire, on Nov. 13-15 and Nov. 15-17.

Members also gave the go-ahead for high school members of the Business Professionals of America to compete at the state level against 400 other students in Norwood on March 4-5. They qualified via a regional competition.

They also voted to allow the high school boys varsity hockey team to travel to Martha’s Vineyard for a tournament Feb. 18-19.

Project 351 ambassador shares experience

In other business, the committee heard from Project 351 ambassador Sophia Zanella and Hopkinton Middle School assistant principal Ann Benbenek about the eighth-grader’s experience in Boston last month.

Project 351 is a non-profit organization promoting a youth-led movement for change.

Benbenek explained that ambassadors are chosen in every city and town in the state. She said Zanella possesses the needed qualities of kindness, compassion, humility and gratitude.

In addition to being an Ignite leader, Zanella is involved with Best Buddies and is a peer mentor to a younger student who moved into the district.

At the event, Zanella said she had the opportunity to hear “powerful” speeches, work with a group making blankets for people who are homeless, sing songs and hear Governor Maura Healey speak on being kind and bullying prevention.

“It was interesting to be in the same room with her,” Zanella noted.

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