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North End kids will attend three schools in as many years

Posted by Your Town  May 10, 2013 05:39 PM

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(Photo by Kiera Blessing)

The North Bennet St. School in the North End.

A giant game of musical chairs is only just beginning for many students at the North End's Eliot K-8 Innovation School, who will occupy three different school buildings over the next several years. Beginning this fall, a current third-grader at the school will not spend more than a single year in any given classroom building for the next three years.

That’s because the Eliot is expanding, and it’s no easy feat. The entire process will filter students through the original Eliot property at 16 Charter St., the recently acquired $11.35 million building at 39 North Bennet St., and 585 Commercial St., which was just purchased by the City of Boston in early April for over $12 million.

The constant movement isn’t ideal in the eyes of most parents, but the common opinion echoed among them is that this is a hassle that is worth the end result: expanded and updated facilities for one of the city’s most popular public schools.

“My guess would be that parents would be concerned about ‘What’s the immediate effect this will have on my kids?’ but they’re also probably excited about the potential benefits in the long run, it being a better space,” said Dr. Kimberly Howard, a counseling psychologist and professor at Boston University.

“I don’t know what other possibility there could be, so if this is what we have to do to get it done, we’ll do it,” said Lori Toscano, a North End resident and mother of two young students at the Eliot.

The changes are brought on by a need to renovate the property at both 39 North Bennet St. and 585 Commercial St., which cannot hold students during the renovations.

Lynn Bova, whose children are currently in second and fifth grade at the Eliot, said having to drop her kids off at two different locations in the morning will be a challenge. However, she said she isn’t concerned about her son moving to a new school building.

“It’s not like it’s much difference. They’re going to be with all the same kids, so it’s just a different location,” Bova said. “I mean, they are going to a new school, but it’s really not a new school.”

The Eliot’s student population has outgrown its original location, so students will be moved around in order to create space to eventually accommodate for the rising number of downtown families and children. According to the school report card from the City of Boston, the Eliot has 324 total students enrolled for the 2012-13 school year.

According to a March 2013 press release from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s office, trends show an eight percent increase in enrollment in kindergarten for the coming fall. Over the last decade, the number of school-aged kids downtown has increased by 23 percent.

To accommodate these growing numbers, as well as the heightened popularity of the Eliot, the City of Boston has developed a three-year plan to both expand the Eliot and open a new K-8 downtown school — the first to open in 50 years.

Menino said in a press release that the announcement of a new downtown school “marks another step forward as we work to improve our entire Boston Public Schools system, where more parents are choosing to send their children every year.”

In March, the Boston School Committee approved a new school assignment plan by a vote of 6-1. The new plan, called the Home-Based model, assigns students to schools based on those that are closest to their home, increasing the chances of families getting their first-choice school from 72 percent with the previous Three-Zone system to 80 percent. Over the last year, an External Advisory Committee held over 100 open meetings and heard over 5,000 opinions on the optimal school choice plan before the Home-Based model was approved. The Home-Based model, which takes affect beginning the 2014-2015 school year, is the first new model since 1988.

Throughout the process, the students are the most heavily affected by the changes. Though only a single age group — the current third grade — will be subjected to three buildings in three years, hundreds of students will have to adjust to a new space at 585 Commercial St., and some will have to adjust yet again to 39 North Bennet St. Of the nine grade levels, five will be forced to make at least one adjustment.

Parents expressed little concern. They agreed that the children will make the transition easily with the help of the school administration, which declined comment at this time despite numerous interview requests.

“My guess is that the kids will adapt,” said Rob Whitney, a Beacon Hill resident whose two young daughters will be attending the Eliot this fall. “I don’t think most parents will have a problem. … I would hope that [the faculty] would make the kids comfortable, and I’m sure that they will.”

Howard, who has worked in schools as a counselor for varying age groups, said the success of transitions like this one relies heavily on the faculty’s behavior. “As much consistency in routine as [the faculty] can maintain despite the kids being in a different place, the better,” she said.

Common problems for kids in school transitions include anxiety, excitement, and difficulty paying attention and retaining information, according to Howard.

“Even when it is a change that kids are looking forward to, we still have to know that it’s taking some of their resources, some of what they have inside them to face each day and the challenges and the tasks of each day, some of that is going to be wrapped up in just managing the newness,” Howard said.

Howard also said that the Eliot faculty should explain the transition to students ahead of time and help them visualize the experience before it happens. The faculty should also get the kids as familiar with the new space as possible before classes begin.

Lee McGuire, Communications Director for BPS, expressed confidence in the Eliot’s faculty to handle the movement with grace. “What we have going is that it’s a great school with a fantastic school leader and great teachers. And they’re excellent at preparing students for what’s coming next and they always try to make a learning experience out of everything,” he said. “I think their strength is in parent and student engagement. So I know they’re going to work hard over the next year to make sure families understand what they need to do to get ready.”

In March, Menino announced the city’s plan to purchase 585 Commercial St., with plans to create a new downtown public K-8 school. In April, the City Council approved the appropriation of $15.8 million from the Surplus Property Disposition Fund for the purchase of the property that Menino requested in a letter to the council, although it is unclear exactly how much of that money was used for the actual purchase. As previously reported, the building cost the city $12.85 million.

Renovations to this building will begin in June 2015, after the Eliot students have left for the summer, according to a press release. The Eliot will resume use of 39 North Bennet St. that fall, and will continue to operate in two separate buildings in the future.

The 39 North Bennet St. address, once the site of the North Bennet Street School, was purchased by the City of Boston in May of 2012 for $11.35 million. The building actually includes addresses at 37-39 North Bennet St. and 48-52 Tileston St. and is located within one tenth of a mile of the original Eliot building, according to a press release from Menino’s office.

The property at 39 North Bennet St. currently holds grades five through eight for the Eliot.

Beginning this fall, grades five through eight at the Eliot School will be taught at 585 Commercial St., while kindergarten through fourth grade will be taught at 16 Charter St. These grades will remain in place for two years while 39 North Bennet St. is renovated.

The City of Boston plans to open an independent K-8 Boston Public School in fall 2016 at 585 Commercial St. These plans will need to be approved by the Boston School Committee before renovations get underway.

“We’re going to make North Bennet Street better while everybody’s in 585, then we’re going to move out of 585, make that building better, and create a new school in that building,” summarized McGuire. “It’s like hopscotch.”

Renovations within 39 North Bennet St. involve creating classrooms, offices and bathrooms according to a study conducted by the Boston Public Facilities Department. The study estimated the total cost of renovations at about $13.7 million.

“We have students there now, but we can make it better,” said McGuire.

Like those at 39 North Bennet St., renovations to 585 Commercial St. involve all the necessary changes that will make the property suitable to be a stand-alone school. Currently, the building is an empty office space, previously used as a furniture store and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign headquarters. Following renovations, it will have space to prepare food, space for students to eat, rooms for special education, and other amenities necessary for a public K-8 school.

Upon completion, 585 Commercial St. will serve families in the downtown area, including the North End, Charlestown, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill, according to McGuire.

“I feel very comfortable,” said Bova of the school plans and faculty. Traci Walker Griffith, the principal at the Eliot, “has done great things for the Eliot since she’s been there. Change happens, you know?”

This article is being published under a partnership between The Boston Globe and Boston University.

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