District Enrollment Keeps Marching Higher as School Year Begins

Photo: More students have entered Belmont schools in the past three months.

The news on student enrollment levels in Belmont’s six public schools from School Superintendent John Phelan continues along a familiar theme of the past five years: more are still coming.

At the Sept. 8 School Committee meeting, Phelan reported that between June 1 to Sept. 3, 72 net additional students in Kindergarten through 12th grade entered the system which now serves a total enrollment of 4,362.

Since 2009, approximately 400 additional students have been added to the district’s rolls. 

Phelan said he is “very optimistic” of the total figure as it was close to actual number of children counted on the first day of school, Wednesday, Sept. 2, which saw an attendance rate of 97.5 percent.

“Everyone came and were welcomed to class,” said Phelan.

Notable in the new enrollment data is the jump in the number of students at the Chenery Middle School which crossed the 1,300 student mark with 1,320 pupils, an increase of 38 students in the past 90 days.

But Phelan said he’s confident that total and middle school numbers will rise as every day “two or three more students” were being enrolled in the first week of school opening.

To keep up with the rising numbers, Belmont High has converted existing modular space behind the school into classrooms, the only school that will be using non-permanent structures this year. In June, Phelan said it looked increasingly possible that added physical space will be required in the 2016-17 school year to accommodate the new students. 

No Need for Modulars at Belmont Schools in Coming School Year

Photo: Newton’s Oak Hill Middle School recently used eight modulars to fill a temporary space need, adding 4,800 sq.-ft. to the district’s footprint.

During the worst of the record snow fall in February, it appeared a certainty that many of Belmont’s six schools would see small villages of modular structures spring up in the fall to meet the need of housing the explosion of students – 317 in the past five years – entering the district.

But under the warmth of summer skies, the outlook for temporary classrooms moving into spaces adjacent the schools has diminished so much that the district will be able to handle the current enrollment within the footprint of the half-dozen schools, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan told the Belmont School Committee at its June 9 meeting.

But Phelan said he could only make that assurance for the upcoming 2015-16 school calendar. After that, with a projection of more than 800 additional students entering the district over 10 years by the 2018-19 school year, the school department will need to work closely with the town’s Capital Budget Committee to discuss options on meeting classroom demands.

“We will form a committee to meet this fall to re-examine and solidify our enrollment projections and brainstorm short- and long-term solutions,” said Phelan, saying the group will consist of school committee members and town officials including those serving on Capital Budget.

But the need for temporary classrooms will not be necessary in the coming school year, said Phelan. Each of the schools were able to “create” space to be utilized for learning;

  • The four elementary schools will use existing space and the increase in full-time equivalent staffing to expand programming to meet the rising enrollment; 
  • A computer lab at the Chenery Middle School will be retrofitted into classroom space to accommodate the increase in students; and 
  • The High School will use the existing modular classrooms units in the back of the school adjacent the commuter rail tracks. As of now, there will be no need to move the Belmont Food Pantry which is located in two of the rooms. 

Yet if enrollment trends continue as predicted in recent models, “we will need to discuss our options with the School Committee and the Capital Committee,” said Phelan. 

In the past two years, Belmont town and school officials have used the idiom that the school district has been “bursting at the seams” with the rapid increase in student enrollment – 330 more students – since 2009.

In February, Phelan noted that skyrocketing student rolls would likely require the district to consider using modular classrooms – single-story prefabricated buildings most notably used in Belmont to house Wellington Elementary students as the new school was being built.

A report on enrollment commissioned by former Belmont Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston in 2013 bluntly stated the Chenery Middle School “does not have enough space to support the current level of student enrollment” and won’t be able to fit the large classes funneling from the four elementary schools in the next five years.

The solution “will result in the need for modular classrooms” by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year at the school located on Washington Street. 

Nor is the situation at the aging Belmont High School any better. The school is currently “out of space,” said the report, with 31 rooms shared by two teachers and four rooms by three teachers.

Modular classrooms are growing in popularity in many school districts to meet space demands. Modulars can be brought onto a site and set up in a matter of days, with lower annual utility and operating costs then a permanent building. 

Newton’s Oak Hill Middle School recently used eight modulars to fill a temporary space need, adding 4,800 sq.-ft. to the district’s footprint.