For years, Tony Fama has taught foreign language to eighth grade students in a modular classroom, separated from the rest of South Middle School by a pre-fabricated corridor and a set of double doors.
Fama’s classroom, identical to the space where his colleague Jim Joyce teaches Social Studies next door, is lined with posters, student assignments and other decorations that spill out into the corridor. The ability to easily tack items to the walls – the inside material is essentially cork board – is one of the design features that set the modular rooms apart from regular classrooms.
“I love it,” Fama said.
Braintree may soon install 24 more modular classrooms, augmenting the two each at South and Highlands Elementary, depending on a vote of the School Committee later this month. The proposal, what the superintendent has called a permanent solution to a space crunch that has developed over years, appears to have the support of enough school officials to move forward.
However, many parents and at least one School Committee member have criticized the plan, asking why the school department would commit to constructing more pre-fabricated classrooms rather than use the results of a space needs study the department commissioned to formulate a long-term solution featuring some combination of permanent additions, renovations and new schools.
School department officials argue that is a false choice. They say that Braintree’s schools, and in particular its elementary schools, need more classroom space as soon as possible, not just to increase full-day kindergarten offerings, but primarily to avoid higher class sizes and provide room for projected enrollment increases.
"There are other districts who have put in pre-fabricated classrooms and coordinated them so you’d be hard pressed to see a difference," Superintendent Dr. Peter Kurzberg said. "Whatever we do, and if this ends up being the plan, we want to do it with quality, and we want it to be something that everyone would look at and take pride in."
When the two classrooms were installed at South in 2001, Principal Ed McDonough requested their wood paneling be painted red to better blend in with the existing structure.
The classrooms are somewhat smaller than a regular classroom, are more square than rectangular, but McDonough said he has not fielded a complaint about them in the decade since their installation. Before South's recent $3 million renovation, they featured the newest windows, and also offered air conditioning.
"At that time they were the best rooms in the house," McDonough said.
Originally, the plan was for them to serve as temporary space until the town decided on larger-scale plans for new construction and additions, but voters failed to advance that intiative, and the modular classrooms have been re-leased every year, at an annual cost of $56,000. With some minor fixes, perhaps a new roof in the next few years, McDonough said he expects the classrooms to last another decade.
"Whatever we're given, we make it work," McDonough said.
Space Solutions Range in Cost, Type
Facing the addition of 600 students over the last 10 years and hundreds more expected over the next five, the School Committee commissioned a study by architectural firm Habeeb & Associates. Last year, the firm outlined several options for addressing the district’s space needs.
Those included re-activating Eldridge, Foster and Montiquot as kindergarten centers, building additions to all six elementary schools, adding gymnasiums to Flaherty and Ross and/or constructing four new K-5 schools.
Habeeb noted in its summary that the latter option would require re-districting, but would also be the least disruptive and provide ample space. It would also cost more than $122 million, with the town possibly recouping about half that through the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
The other alternatives recommended by the firm – ranging from re-opening the former buildings with upgrades at the six current schools to building just one new school and upgrading the others – came with projected costs of $65 million to $81 million.
Leasing 24 modular classrooms (four each at the six schools) over seven years with a $1 buyout at the end of the contract would cost the town $3.2 million, according to a memo put together for the School Committee by Business Manager Peter Kress. Wood-framed additions would cost about $500,000 less.
"Every one of our elementary schools needs an addition," Kress said in an interview. “This would solve it quickly and this is the most economical and palatable solution for our community.”
Braintree would be able to custom-design the classrooms by paying somewhat more, Kress said. Along with the brick, larger windows and more electrical outlets could be installed, for example.
The school department developed the new options after considering the high cost of what the Habeeb study laid out and the immediate need for space, Dr. Kurzberg said.
"From a practical standpoint, were [the modular classrooms] to be installed in schools, I think the other projects would not be considered as viable options at this point," the superintendent said.
Along with the modular classrooms, Kress's memo also presented two ways to re-open Monatiquot as a kindergarten center.
One would create a full-day program with 180-200 students, freeing classroom space at each home and providing more seats than the current 60 offered at Braintree High School. The other would open Monatiquot for half-day kindergarten, shifting 360-400 students there in 10 classrooms.
Both options would come with $167,000 in start-up costs, according to the school department. Annual costs for the full-day alternative would amount to $882,000 and $625,000 for the half-day option.
Transportation would not be provided for full-day, and would be confusing for the half-day program, Dr. Kurzberg said, with students being routed through their home schools.
The superintendent added that the upside of modular classrooms, along with contributing more space than re-opening Monatiquot, is that the pre-built structures could be paid from capital funds, putting less of a pinch on the annual operating budget.
School Committee member Pam Kiley disputes that notion, questioning the cost of re-opening Monatiquot. Half of the cost projected by the superintendent is inflated, Kiley said in an email.
"I still believe that opening Monatiquot as [a full-day kindergarten space], will temporarily ease the burden of the elementary school space issues," Kiley said, "and then we need to address building a new elementary school and building onto one or both of the existing middle schools."
Kiley contends that permanent additions – such as those built in 2006-2007 at Flaherty and Liberty – serve Braintree better in the long-run.
She chaired the “Building for our Future” campaign and helped raised $50,000 of the cost at Liberty. Both additions, totalling two classrooms at each school, amounted to $710,000.
Juggling Classrooms, Cafeterias and Media Centers
Space has been tight in Braintree's elementary and middle schools for years, prompting the addition of modular classrooms at South and Highlands more than a decade ago.
Talk of the problem and potential solutions has intensified over the last few years, but "the current space crunch did not just happen," Kiley said.
"It has been discussed since at least 2005 and now we are being told that we have one month to make a hasty decision to put up modulars to avoid potential redistricting," Kiley said. "Raising the specter of redistricting is, in my opinion, totally irrelevant as it would do nothing to alleviate the problem but only serves to frighten people into wanting any other option."
Avoiding re-districting is one reason the superintendent gave to support the modular proposal, but Dr. Kurzberg also said that Braintree's elementary schools date back decades – Hollis celebrated its 100th anniversary last year – and the school department is disinclined to start from scratch.
“Up until recently, the thinking about adding space was you tear down the school, and I think that the philosophy now is after [the study] that nobody wants to abandon any of the current six schools we have,” Peter Kress said. “It’s just not going to happen. We need to find a way to make these schools work.”
At Highlands, Principal Dr. Nancy Pelletier said the building is an important part of the educational atmosphere, and that any future modular classrooms, if outfitted with brick veneer, would complement the historical appearance.
"The building has character, it has personality," Dr. Pelletier said.
Two existing pre-fabricated classrooms at Highlands are clad in blue wood paneling. They contain space for third grade students and are among the nicest in the school, Dr. Pelletier said.
When they were installed in 2001, the classrooms were the only two at Highlands with air conditioning. That has gradually been installed in much of the school, but as recently as last year, students congregated in the rooms on a 100-degree day.
"The kids were just melting," Dr. Pelletier said.
During discussion of the modular classrooms last week before the School Committee, Dr. Pelletier said she heard the complaints about thin walls, but in her experience it has not been a problem. The teachers in the space now have used the adjoining wall for cabinets and shelving, helping prevent noise leakage.
Four more modular classrooms would provide permanent space for teachers who now use other rooms as they are available for things like small-group math intervention and reading assistance, Dr. Pelletier said. The top priorities for the space would be making sure four sections of each grade are available if necessary and making room for those extra needs programs.
"We're constantly juggling for opportunities for children to work," the principal said, while stressing that her teachers perform at a high level despite the space crunch.
This year, more than a dozen Highlands students attend full-day kindergarten at BHS. Dr. Pelletier, who is also the principal of the pilot program at the high school, said it has been a tremendous success so far, but also that if Highlands could support a full-day classroom, "that would be ideal."
Adding 24 classrooms at the elementary level will not do anything for those students when they age-up, though. Space is also tight at both East and South middle schools.
The staff at South has become increasingly creative when it comes to space. Educational spaces have been created on one side of the cafeteria and the school is in the process of finishing a conversion of its former shop space on the lower level into a computer lab and classrooms.
"They're used to thinking out of the box," Principal McDonough said of his teachers.
Yet it is also important that teachers have their own area for planning, McDonough said. Before the two modular classrooms came in, it was more difficult for teachers looking to prepare during unassigned periods. Staying in the classroom while another class was taught is uncomfortable, as is working in the teacher's room while others are trying to take a break.
"Much of what teachers do is in the planning," McDonough said. "When you don't have your own space, it affects the planning."
Needs Stretch Beyond Current Proposal
As the school department fleshes out its budget for the upcoming year, there will be an examination of what to do about the space needs that remain at South, Dr. Kurzberg said. East also faces its own challenges.
"Right now they are managing to utilize the space for the students they have," the superintendent said.
Whatever the fix for next fall, if Braintree continues to attract residential development and young families, and enrollment projections hold true, the additional space will soon need to be augmented with even more classrooms.
In a 2011 report to the Massachusetts School Building Authority outlining Braintree's space needs, the school department said that over the next five years, Highlands, for example, will need six additional classrooms "to deliver a proper educational program to our students."
Hollis and Ross also will likely need six more classrooms, unless a seventh elementary school is built, according to MSBA filings. The reports also calls for 10 more classrooms at South.
"Additional classroom space is needed in every one of our school facilities," the report says. "We have converted storage space into offices and small learning centers. There is no more space left within the Braintree Public Schools for any additional students. Additional classroom space is needed to provide a full range of programs consistent with state and approved local requirements as well as reducing current and future overcrowding in our facilities."