School enrollment: no room in the inn

This year’s 7,244 enrollment in Brookline public schools–kindergarten through high school–is the most ever, as reported to the state October 1. The previous peak of about 7,050 occurred in 1970. By the fall of 2010, enrollment growth was providing clear warnings that Brookline needed more school space.


Source: Massachusetts Department of Education

Those warnings were mostly ignored until 2013, when a committee formed by the Board of Selectmen produced a plan of sorts. Caught up in strong controversy after considering parks and playgrounds for school sites, that committee backed away, recommending an approach it called “expand in place”–meaning enlarging current schools. As some members knew, such an approach could prove extremely costly.

After falling gradually for over 15 years, Brookline’s student population had begun a steady rise in 2005. Between September, 2005, and September, 2014, the school census reported to the state for kindergarten through eighth grade rose from 3,896 to 5,353. The rate of increase for school years 2009 to 2011 was 3.8 percent per year. The rate declined to 2.7 percent per year for 2013 to 2015.

Growth might be slowing, but it will probably take at least two more years to know. For the past nine years, Brookline’s elementary-school population has been increasing by an average of about 160 students per year. At that rate, to maintain class sizes of no more than 25 students, the schools need about seven more classrooms each year. Once-surplus rooms and special-purpose rooms have been put in service as regular classrooms. Pre-kindergarten was moved to rented space, starting in 2012. There is almost nothing left.

Coping: At its meeting December 18, the School Committee heard from William Lupini, the school superintendent, about limits of using “expand in place.” A proposal for expanding Driscoll School had just been rejected by the state School Building Authority, leaving a small extension for Lawrence, now underway, and a major renovation for Devotion, recently endorsed by the state authority, as the works in progress.

The Devotion project has been described as adding about nine regular classrooms with about 30,000 square feet of new space. Much of the latter appears to be common and special-purpose space. The project cost is $110 to $120 million, as most recently estimated–in effect, about $13 million per new classroom. If Brookline were to add seven new classrooms a year in a similar fashion, through major renovations, it would be spending around $90 million a year on school construction–comparable to the budget for operating the public schools.

An “expand in place” approach, as implemented at Devotion, seems beyond what any community could afford. Dr. Lupini spoke about installing modular classrooms at Baker and about renting a commercial building to add space near Pierce. He said the Board of Selectmen had approved a consulting contract to search for privately owned land where another elementary school might be built (December 17, $60,825 with an outfit called Civic Moxie).

Perspective: Although School Committee members likely heard about these matters well before their December 18 meeting, they still looked a bit like starlings in a storm. Compared to some past committees, it is a fairly young and inexperienced one. Only Helen Charlupski has been involved with a major building project on a new school campus–the new Lincoln School on Kennard Rd., opened in 1994.

That type of experience is now rare. During the twentieth century, the only other such project was the Baker School on Beverly Rd., opened in 1939 and expanded in 1951 and 2000. Brookline had begun developing public schools in the 1840s, during the years of Horace Mann’s service. By the turn of the twentieth century, seven other large elementary school campuses and the current high school campus had already been built out.

A consultant’s review of Brookline schools from 1917 is revealing. It was performed by James H. Van Sickle, the superintendent of schools in Springfield, then well known as a former school superintendent in Denver and in Baltimore and as editor of Riverside Readers, distributed by Houghton-Mifflin. Mr. Van Sickle had consulted for Boston since 1901 and for Brookline since 1910; he also consulted for Bridgeport, CT.

At the time, Brookline taught nine grades of elementary school, starting at average age 5-1/2, four years of high school and voluntary half-day kindergartens. Students unable to pass a ninth-grade exit examination were turned over to the Manual Training School. Mr. Van Sickle documented class polarization in Brookline schools. He found strong student achievement at Driscoll, Runkle, Lawrence and Devotion Schools and weak achievement at Pierce, Lincoln and Heath.

Mr. Van Sickle found a cumulative dropout rate of 70 percent in 1916. starting in seventh grade. He correlated that with differential neglect of school buildings. The high school building, he warned, was also at high risk, because of a poorly protected heating plant. His key recommendation to reduce dropout, a junior high school, was never implemented. The former high school was largely destroyed in a 1936 fire.

Luxury schools: Brookline built the second Heath School and the second Devotion Primary School during the 1950s with fairly frugal plans. During the 1960s, under different administrations, the town began luxury spending. Misguided administrators seemed to think “open schooling” ideas then popular meant ways of designing classrooms, when they really meant ways of teaching students. Brookline’s tax rate rose as much as 20 percent a year during that era.

Adjusted for inflation, the third Pierce School–taking the site of the former Pierce Grammar School and two buildings on Harvard St.–cost more than twice as much per square foot as any previous Brookline elementary school. For that high price, Brookline bought misery. The leaky, noisy, uncomfortable building worked more like a factory than a school. Faulty construction led to years of repairs and lawsuits. Design errors led to years of changes, correcting some of the problems.

Brookline is once again spending heavily on a luxury school project–this time for Devotion School. The south wing is only about 60 years old, and the north wing is only about 40 years old. Nevertheless, the current plans are to demolish and replace both, although the north wing could be extended and both wings renovated for far less money. The center building will be retained and upgraded, even though it is about 100 years old. Spending for this project will likely crimp and cheapen Brookline’s other schools.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, December 26, 2014

Brookline school census reports for fiscal years 1994 through 2015, Massachusetts Department of Education, 2014

Craig Bolon, Devotion School: Option 0, a plan for a community, Brookline Beacon, September 14, 2014

Devotion School Building Committee: designs and controversies, Brookline Beacon, September 11, 2014

School Committee: Driscoll plans, policies, technology and testing, Brookline Beacon, May 27, 2014

Final report, School Population and Capacity Expansion Committee, Town of Brookline, MA, 2013

Roland S. Barth, Open Education and the American School, Agathon Press, 1972

James H. Van Sickle, Educational Survey of the Public Schools of Brookline, Massachusetts, Brookline School Committee, 1917

One thought on “School enrollment: no room in the inn

  1. Jonathan Abbett

    Assuming the Devotion costs you cite are still valid 4 months later, how does $13M per 25-student classroom compare to elementary school building projects across the Commonwealth? Thanks for your help!

    Editor’s note –
    The principal source of information is the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

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