My email has been lighting up this week with messages from School Committee candidates and advocacy groups on all sides of the Hunnewell-Hardy-Upham (HHU) elementary school debate. Some support a long-studied plan to consolidate to six, larger, elementary schools across town and mothball either Hardy or Upham for reactivation if a current slide in student numbers reverses. Some are resurrecting an idea our school district leaders have long studied and recommended against: keeping seven schools.
Arguments for the latter include smaller classes and traffic safety. The reasoning goes that keeping both Upham and Hardy will allow kids to access their respective schools without crossing busy Route 9 and keep students in smaller-sized grades. On the flip side, they assert that consolidating to one larger school at Hardy would further congest drop-off traffic on Weston Road. Consolidating to one larger school at Upham would disrupt a quiet neighborhood and kill a forest to make room for the larger school.
Research doesn’t support small classes leading to better outcomes
These arguments, while neighborhood-spirited, miss the forest for the trees. For one, the small school argument flies in the face of education research. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation famously pivoted its education strategy (https://gates.ly/3akhvDC) of funding the development of small schools over a decade ago (and after $2 billion of grants) when data-driven analysis found that the size of class and school made little difference to student outcomes, whereas culture and leadership of schools and quality of teachers, made an enormous difference.
This implies a need for something we might all agree on: physical teaching environments that will attract quality teachers and principals. (At our children’s school, Fiske, we lost a top specialist when her teaching space deteriorated.) The fastest way to achieve this is to stick with the six-school solution the town already has developed (through years of work by committed volunteers and professionals). In a publicly available memo last month to our school superintendent, our town facilities director estimated it would cost Wellesley an extra $40m million-46 million to renovate or rebuild a seventh school, plus we’d likely lose ~ $13 million in Massachusetts School Building Authority funding due to reopening and delaying the decision process. If this happens, our kids could be stuck in decrepit schools until 2028, and the town could lose its flexibility to adjust to changing enrollment.
Traffic and safety are best answered by busing
Meanwhile, the traffic argument reminds me of a classic Harvard Business School case about unjamming production at a cranberry cooperative. Should one change the plant layout? Change the workers’ shifts? Build a second processing facility? The real-life answer, it turned out, lay in looking outside the plant and better timing the drop-off of cranberries. A low-cost fix.
Similarly, with HHU, we would do well to look outside our schools for cost-effective innovation, to the vehicles that transport our students. We assume congestion due to parents and caregivers queueing up in cars for drop offs and pickups but what if we radically redeployed our collective fleet? Reduced car drop offs and expanded busing?
If busing to an enlarged Hardy or Upham became the norm, it would help solve current street congestion, let alone future. It would eradicate pollution from idling cars and create safe passage on buses across Route 9 for all students. And it would make expanding the campus at Hardy, where the town already has spent about $3.5 million to acquire land along Route 9 that will create more points of access, a viable and attractive solution that saves the forest at Upham.
Indeed, if we save that $40-plus million on rebuilding a seventh school and the $600,000 a year to operate it, we’d have slack in the town’s overall budget to subsidize busing. When you run the logic and the numbers, six schools, expanded busing and an enlarged campus at Hardy is the economically smart and safe answer for students and for our town’s green space. Let’s look outside the classrooms and innovate in the right way to achieve the best outcomes for students.
Katie Smith Milway, an advisor to nonprofits and philanthropy, lives at Laurel Terrace. Her three children happily bused through their elementary school years and their bus stop became a valuable and supportive community listening post.