Haverhill School Committee Ponders Modular Classrooms for Crowded J.G. Whittier School

John Greenleaf Whittier School. (Jay Saulnier file photograph for WHAV News.)

Everyone agrees the John Greenleaf Whittier School is bursting at the seams, but it is not clear what should be done about it.

A group of concerned parents, along with School Principal Matthew Condon and Assistant Principal Kathy Koch, asked the Haverhill School Committee last Thursday for approval to buy 12 modular classrooms to help ease overcrowded conditions. Ken Morse, one of the parents making that request, began by presenting an overview of the school.

“So, we have a very diverse community at JG. There’s 487 students. Seventy-two percent of the body identify as high-needs. So, we finally have the staff to meet all those needs, thanks to all the recent additions. Now, we have another problem. That’s square footage. Literally, Mrs. Koch is working miracles. She’s got every square inch of that building scheduled every minute of every day,” he said.

Morse said there are students using the gymnasium and the library for classrooms. He said space for staff is an issue as well. He also pointed out the problem will only get worse next year as class sizes are predicted to grow to nearly 30 students.

The assistant principal gave some examples of the problems they are already facing at the school. “We’ve been given so many great resources in terms of our numbers of interventionists and coaches and we don’t have a good place to put them. They basically have to put up their own classrooms because they go into the gym, they have to bring in their own supplies. In addition, it is very, very loud. It’s really the space driving how we run our schedule rather than the learning needs,” she said.

Committee member Toni Sapienza-Donais agreed the problem is real, saying when she was the principal of that school several years ago, the problem was bad but “it is 10 times worse today.”

Fellow Committee member Gail M. Sullivan acknowledged the overcrowded conditions, but expressed reservations about the use of modular classrooms citing safety concerns.

“We want to be sure we’re talking about our kids being safe. That’s the first thing that occurs to me. It’s very hard to ensure that a portable classroom that’s outside of all the safeguards that we’ve established can be safe,” she said.

Additionally, the cost of each unit would be at least $150,000—an amount that would require approval from the mayor and the City Council. As such, the Committee voted unanimously to send the request to a Joint Facilities Committee comprised of School Committee members and city councilors to investigate the best way to move forward.

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