Ninth Grade? Eighth Grade? Kindergarten? What Should A New Belmont High Include

Photo: Belmont High School.

When the Massachusetts School Building Authority accepted Belmont’s application in January 2016 to provide partial state funding for the renovation of and new construction at Belmont High School, it was seen as a boom for future 9th through 12th graders who’ll attend the school when it’s completed approximately a decade from now.

But, hold on, why not add eighth graders to the new school? How about seventh graders? 

No, wait, how about creating a separate building to the High School campus to house the town’s preK and Kindergarteners? 

A new high school would not just allow an improvement to the educational process for students, some in town believe that configured in the right way the “new” $140-$150 million school could creatively lessen the overcrowding in the Belmont School District’s middle and elementary school buildings predicted for the district for years in the future.

Three school layouts – for 9-12, 8-12, and K and preK – will likely be presented next year to residents, parents, educators, and many others to assist the Belmont High School Building Committee when it offers a final concept to the MSBA of the renovated structure on the shore of Clay Pit Pond.

It is estimated that it will take upwards of two years before a single design configuration is selected.

Number of students

At its early morning meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 2 at the Belmont Gallary of Art, the Building Committee heard the MSBA – which works collaboratively with school districts it provides funding (estimated to be about a third of the actually construction) –  would allow Belmont a bit more time to finalize the numbers that will determine just how big a school the community can build. 

One of the most important figures to be determined is “just how many students over time … will be in the building,” said Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan. Currently, the MSBA and the school district has been comparing what their crystal balls are telling them just how many will be occupying the site.

Over the past month, Phelan has been carrying the ball for Belmont before the MSBA, advocating for a 9-12 student population of nearly 1,525 (determined by the district’s enrollment consultant) about ten years from now, about 50 pupils more than what the Building Authority predicts for the building. 

“The ‘who will be in the building’ will be a big decision for this committee,” said Phelan, which the committee will agree by mid-October. 

But the total student number is just the first of two principal components in calculating the physical size of the new school. 

The other determinate is the number of “educational programs” the district offers at the High School beyond the basic core curriculum that is taught – English, math, art, etc. Those would include music and theater, SPED classrooms, studios, computer labs, Physical Education, teaching stations, an auditorium, and other offerings. 

It is only when the student population and programs provided by the district are combined and calculated is when a total square footage of the renovated school is determined. 

While the actual headcount for the schools is in the 1,500 range, the school would be designed as if Belmont High had an extra 100 to 150 students, said Building Chair William Lovallo

“We are … much more relaxed when they explained” what constitutes the “final amount (of students) in the building,” Phelan said.

But just because the school can house the expected number of students, “this will need to be an education solution not just an [enrollment] one,” said Lovallo, as Phelan said each design would employ the best schooling practices. He said if the decision is for an 8-to-12 school, it would likely be built to house two campuses: an “academy” for 8th and 9th graders with a traditional “high school” for the upper classmen, where all students would share gym, theater and music spaces and sports activities.  

While all school projects are different and with unique issues, Belmont can look at nearby Winchester High School which will complete the renovation/new construction project next September. 

Winchester has increased its square footage from 280,300 to 288,000 with a top line student enrollment of 1,370. Belmont, at 257,100 sq.-ft., stated in its Statement of Interest to the MSBA it would seek a building in the 290,000 range. 

Grade configuration

Given a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a new high school, the building committee is preparing just “‘who’ will be going to the site,” said Phelan, as the district is looking at three grade options for the high school:

  • A traditional 9 through the 12-grade structure,
  • extended grades 8-12 configuration, and
  • a unique structure at the site housing the town’s pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs.

Phelan said the two non-traditional approaches are under consideration  due to the the surge in the past five years in district-wide enrollment. Since 2009, approximately 470 additional students have been added to the district’s rolls with another 500 expected in the next five years.

The solution for rising pupil numbers has been a series of stop-gap efforts. The Chenery will open later this month modular classrooms on the school’s tennis courts to alleviate the expected crush of rising fifth graders entering the building in September. 

For Phelan and others, the renovated school could be that once-in-several-generation opportunity to reduce the stress of overcrowding schools through the district for the foreseeable future.

If for example, an eighth grade is included in the school, 350 more students will be added to the estimated 1,500 students in the 9-12 design.

Once the number of students who will be attending the school is determined, the town will move to creating a feasibility study of each of the alternative configurations.

“A lot of work that [the committee] has over the next month is what is going to be the ‘who’ on that site; what do we want that grade configuration to look like. That will be a big conversation for the town, the teachers, the parents, the Board of Selectmen and School Committee,” said Phelan.

But which of the three options will be going forward to the MSBA will not be the decision of the Building Committee. Rather, Lovallo said, the designs and reasons behind them will be presented to a broad array of organizations – PTA/PTO, Precinct members, teachers, educational staff – as well as residents who will provide a “sense of the town” on which direction the committee will take. 

“We will need community support,” said Lovallo as the MSBA “is not going to sign on to one that will go down in flames.” 

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