(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
City officials say that a popular and overcrowded North End school will grow from two to three classes per grade level as the school expands into a second campus.
The John Eliot K-8 school will begin its expansion in fall 2012 with a third kindergarten-2 class and will eventually have three full “strands” of classes from kindergarten-1 to eighth grade. It’s unclear how soon the school will add the early kindergarten program or how quickly additional classes will be added to each grade.
“At this point, what we have right now is the district has committed to expanding kinder-2, which is where the waiting list right now is the heaviest,” said Principal Traci Walker Griffith in response to a mother’s question at a packed announcement ceremony at the school on Tuesday.
Griffith was joined on the stage by Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, other elected officials, and the leaders of the school’s family council.
Menino and Johnson were heaped with praise for their leadership on education and their responsiveness to the community’s request that the school expand to serve more children. Currently the school has an enrollment of 322 and a waiting list of 295.
“That means for almost every student attending this school now, another child is waiting to get in,” Johnson said.
The expansion has been made possible through a deal with a North End trade school the city announced last week.
The North Bennet Street School, one-tenth of a mile from the Eliot School, will give the city its four-building campus, appraised at $6.7 million, for expansion of the Eliot and pay an additional $4.6 million in cash for two city-owned buildings on North Street that will allow the trade school to expand its own campus and bring all its programs together under one roof.
Johnson said the Eliot’s popularity was due to a swift turnaround led by Griffith, with support from teachers and parents.
“Just five years ago, this school was labeled by the state as a priority school for improvement,” she said. “Just this past year, the state named it one of its highest commendation schools for the entire Commonwealth.”
Johnson also announced Tuesday that the schools department had given preliminary approval to a plan that would designate the Eliot an innovation school, with greater flexibility and autonomy than a standard district school. The plan still must be approved by the full faculty and the School Committee, but if it gets those approvals, some aspects could take effect as early as fall 2012.
Menino, lauded at the ceremony for his support of education, redirected praise toward his education advisor Martha Pierce.
“I tell you, folks, she lives and dies by all the school issues, and she’s the best advocate you guys have at City Hall,” Menino said of Pierce. He then presented Griffith with a handcrafted wooden toolbox that Pierce’s grandfather had made in a woodworking class as a student at the Eliot School in 1889.
Menino, the city’s longest-serving mayor, spoke of the Eliot School’s long history in the North End, with a few jokes at his own expense.
“When the Eliot School opened in 1712 -- I wasn’t mayor then — it was the first grammar school in the City of Boston,” he said. “I know that the Mather School in Dorchester holds this distinction now, but you know, the Eliot has been in existence for nearly 160 years before Dorchester was annexed to our city.”
Menino pointed to the historic associations between the Eliot School and the North Bennet Street School. The original site of the Eliot School, Menino said, was North Bennet Street, and many of its students in the late 19th century took manual arts class at the trade school, as they began to do again through a partnership between the schools formed in 2010.
State Representative Aaron Michlewitz, who grew up in the North End and lives there today, spoke of the significance these announcements had for the neighborhood's future.
“Today really signifies to me the fact that the North End is back,” Michlewitz said. “It’s back in the terms of raising families. It’s back in the terms of being a community. … We’ve watched too many pieces leave us over the past 20, 30, 40 years, piece by piece. And for the first time in my remembrance, we’re getting something back. And we’re really getting something that is so important to the crucial growth of this neighborhood.”
Johnson, the schools superintendent, said that many details of the expansion plan were still to be worked out, and that parents and the community would be actively involved in making decisions.
“Your voices have to be part of this plan,” she said. “We want you to be engaged.”
Israel Ruiz, co-chair of the Eliot School Family Council, said in an interview following the announcement that he was satisfied that parents would have a significant role in the planning.
“I think what I’m very satisfied [with] is the commitment displayed to creating a working group together, and that we will be at the table,” Ruiz said. “We understand that not all of the answers are here today.”
But with school assignment requests for next fall already submitted, some parents wished the news about a new kindergarten-2 class had come sooner.
Jen Bowen-Flynn and her family live directly across Charter Street from the Eliot School, but her daughter Sawyer, 5, was not accepted to the school in the 2011 lottery. The Bowen-Flynns have home-schooled Sawyer for this school year, and she now has a seat at the Josiah Quincy School for this fall.
Bowen-Flynn said the addition of a new strand of classes was great for downtown families who want to remain in the city to raise their children and hope to be able to send them to a community school. But some of those families made tough decisions this year without knowing the Eliot would expand.
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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)