The number of elementary schools in the town of Wellesley has fluctuated to meet the needs of the population over the years. At the height of the “baby boom,” there were 12 small neighborhood K-6 elementary schools in town. As the baby boom children moved on, left behind were empty elementary classrooms with high unneeded operating costs. The town began to close elementary schools, eventually reducing the number to six schools by 1982 (Kingsbury and Sprague closed in 1975; Perrin and Brown in 1981; Schofield and Phillips in 1982; Warren closed in 1987 when Schofield reopened following an addition). Lastly, sixth grade was moved out of the elementary schools in 1982.
In the 1990s, Wellesley’s elementary school population experienced dramatic enrollment growth due to families moving into town and a higher birth rate. Initially, the increased enrollment was handled with the addition of 12 modular classrooms, but it became clear there was need for a seventh elementary school. Since the last elementary school had been built in 1964 (Schofield), many aspects of elementary school education had changed. The most significant development were the changes to special education, which had become a more robust part of the elementary program, providing a wide range of required services for students on Individual Educational Plans as well as specialized in-district programs serving students with more complex needs. These in-district programs required dedicated spaces within our schools. Previously these students would not have been educated in town but instead would attend more expensive out-of-district programs.
As options were considered for a seventh school, there was a healthy discussion in the community about the appropriate size school to build, with consideration from 12 to 24 classrooms. The School Committee initially recommended a new school of 24 classrooms at Sprague and eventually settled at 18.
The reasons for building an 18-classroom elementary school (three sections per grade) were debated in the town in 1998 at length. With a sense of déjà vu, as this issue is once again being debated in town, the educational reasons for building three-section schools can be summed up in two words: flexibility and collaboration.
A three-section school allows greater flexibility in student assignment. Enrollment swings can be handled more easily, and appropriate placement of children within their grade is enhanced when three sections provide the flexibility to consider learning styles, gender balance and peer issues. The small population within two-section schools often raises challenges in staying within the established class size guidelines, resulting in classes with as few as 14 students this year at Upham. Conversely, to prevent classes from going above guideline, the school administration has resorted to a policy of closing grade levels at different elementary schools to new students. The policy forces new families to enroll at a school outside of their neighborhood. This year 20 sections were closed to new arrivals, with an especially hard impact on second grade, where all schools except at Bates were closed to new second grade enrollment. Three-section schools have a greater ability to handle fluctuations in enrollment in a fiscally sound manner while allowing new arrivals to enroll in their neighborhood school.
Collaboration is increased among the faculty teaching in schools that have three sections per grade; teachers have access to more colleagues with diverse perspectives and experiences for planning and support. Professional development is enhanced. Specialists are permanently assigned to a single 18-classroom building, rather than traveling to various smaller schools throughout the day and can work more closely with classroom teachers, creating a stronger and more collaborative model.
The March 17 ballot includes a referendum question asking the town to weigh in on whether the town should have six or seven elementary schools. As the elementary enrollment has decreased, the Wellesley School Committee has spent eight years determining the best path forward for the Hardy, Hunnewell and Upham Schools and the town as a whole. All three schools have reached the end of their usable life as schools and each has such substantial building needs that it makes sense to build anew. Yet, the town’s elementary student population does not justify rebuilding all three schools and continuing the less desirable model of two-section schools with their associated operating costs.
We, four former School Committee members, agree with the decision of the current School Committee to move forward with a two-school option. It is a fiscally responsible and educationally sound decision that is right for Wellesley. Please join us in voting “no” on the referendum question on March 17.