School Committee Advances Plan to Turn St. James into Middle School, Relocate Some Kindergartens

Haverhill School Superintendent Margaret Marotta shows plan to add a St. James middle school district. (WHAV News photograph.)

Haverhill’s school superintendent received a preliminary go-ahead last night to continue studying whether St. James School should be used for grades 4-6 and a related plan to relocate some kindergarten programs.

School Committee members, meeting at a “Budget Workshop” at UMass Lowell’s iHub, heard rationales for using St. James to reduce overcrowded classrooms at four other middle schools. Superintendent Margaret Marotta explained the idea is only a short-term solution.

“One of the assumptions is that in the next three to four years, we will be rebuilding or adding on to Consentino School and having more room at the school,” she said.

As WHAV reported previously, a preview of the plan was presented to the School Committee’s Finance subcommittee last month.

She said St. James School on Primrose Street is currently underused. It educates 80 students participating in two special education programs, but could accept 350 students if repurposed. As a mostly middle school, St. James would take all of the fourth graders now attending Tilton and Consentino Schools. There are also future possibilities of moving fourth and fifth graders at Silver Hill to St. James and moving some John Greenleaf Whittier middle school students to St. James or Nettle School. Marotta noted Consentino was built for grades 5-8, and would gain another 100 seats if the fourth grade is relocated.

Relieving classroom overcrowding is a priority School Committee members asked Marotta to address during this year’s budget planning.

The superintendent said the system has historically accommodated 30 classes in every grade through fourth, but then only planned for 22 classes of each grade beginning with middle school. She explained the same number of students were then crowded into fewer classrooms.

Kindergarten Programs Could Shift Buildings

Under the plan children from Bartlett, Greenleaf and Crowell schools would be moved to Tilton, Silver Hill, Bradford, Pentucket Lake and Golden Hill schools. The current Therapeutic Education Assessment Center of Haverhill and the Haverhill Alternative School would leave St. James and be separated between two of the vacated smaller buildings. A future Alternative High School might also be placed in one of the unused schools.

Building her case, Marotta presented statistics showing almost a quarter of students are “chronically absent”—that is, missing 10 percent or more of classes. She theorized the current organization of school district lines adds to the problem by placing some students far from home or separated from siblings. Adding to the district’s woes, she added, are that 60 percent of students are in the state’s “high needs” category and another 47 percent are “economically disadvantaged.”

City Building Boom Worries Committee

In recent years, the total school population has grown about 50 students a year. School Committee members, however, worried that more housing construction could complicate plans. Member Gail M. Sullivan suggested the committee talk with Mayor James J. Fiorentini and city councilors about the impact of housing approvals. “There is no room at the inn,” she explained.

Marotta’s plan generally received praise. School Committee member Paul A. Magliocchetti called the proposal “a creative way of solving the problem” of overcrowding. He added that vacating Bartlett School might also make it available to Consentino classes that may be disrupted during future construction. Sullivan said St. James, despite its age, is in better shape than other schools.

School Committee member Scott W. Wood Jr., however, cautioned the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which has leased St. James to the city for the past 45 years, can be a tough negotiator. The city is three to four weeks away from reaching a new agreement with the Archdiocese. Members discussed the possibility of negotiating improvements or buying the building outright. The School Committee plans to have its next budget workshop April 10, assuming lease talks will be concluded by then.

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