Monday, June 24, 2024

Families from Somerville’s Winter Hill Community Innovation School at the city’s main library Friday after a school closing. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

Classes were canceled Friday for the 422 students at Somerville’s Winter Hill Community Innovation School after concrete fell onto an inside stairwell, leaving families protesting that they had long warned of such dangers.

The school for prekindergartners to eighth-graders was unoccupied at the time the concrete fell, interim superintendent Jeff Curley said in an email sent to families Thursday evening.

This is the second day of classes students have missed due to Winter Hill facilities issues this school year. In November, the building was closed after a water main broke; students were sent home at noon, parents said.

After staff found the concrete from Thursday’s incident, the stairwell was closed and a structural engineer conducted an immediate review for minor repairs. “Out of an abundance of caution at this time, we have made the decision to close … while structural engineers conduct a more thorough review of the building,” Curley said.

The Wnter Hill school in Somerville on Friday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The review should take a few days, Curley said. The Somerville Public Schools administration is working with the Mayor’s Office to find a building to relocate classrooms to temporarily if necessary.

Winter Hill families and staff have come before the School Committee twice this year already asking for improved facilities to the school, built in 1970.

In April, Somerville Public Schools submitted a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for funding to replace or seriously renovate the Winter Hill building at 115 Sycamore St. because it was deemed “structurally unsound” and jeopardized “the safety and well-being of school children.”

Somerville School Committee chair Andre Green, second from right, with city councilors,. from left, Jake Wilson, Lance Davis and Jefferson Thomas (J.T.) Scott. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

But the funding program is competitive, and it has historically aided schools with white students at a higher level than schools with students of color. Half of the students at Winter Hill are Hispanic, a third are white and 10 percent are black, according to district data. The school also houses specialized programs for students with autism and students who are new to the United States.

The process is also long. Somerville will not learn whether funding is awarded for the Winter Hill building until the end of the year.

That might be too long to wait.

Families protesting Winter Hill school conditions Friday in Somerville. (Photo: Emily Piper-Vallillo)

Instead of reporting to her classroom Friday, Eve, a Winter Hill third-grader, joined students, families and educators outside the Somerville Public Library to call attention again to their crumbling building.

“Many of the other buildings have better conditions, such as the high school,” Eve said, looking toward the nearby newly renovated high school. “I just want us to fix the schools that are in bad shape like ours.”

“We’ve been asking for a plan”

Courtney Koslow, the parent of a Winter Hill third-grader, missed a work meeting because of the Winter Hill closing. “It’s really challenging,” Koslow said. “It feels like day one of the pandemic shutdown.”

What is so frustrating about this incident, Koslow said, was that it was not a surprise.

“It is really scary,” Koslow said. “We’ve been asking for a plan for exactly this. We predicted, given the conditions, that this was a likely scenario, and we’ve been asking for a contingency plan in addition to a new building.”

Some parents consider the school not “a workable space for teachers to educate,” Koslow said.

School Committee voice

School Committee chair Andre Green joined families at the protest.

“I hope the School Committee takes a moment to think about every possible thing we can do to speed this process up, and if that means going on without the MSBA, I think we should consider it,” Green said.

Somerville has a highest possible bond rating, meaning low interest rates if the city borrowed money for renovations or construction, Green said.

“If any city can [address a situation such as this], I think we have a decent chance,” Green said.

Emails from a year ago

With Green were Somerville city councilors including Jefferson Thomas (J.T.) Scott. “All credit needs to go to the Winter Hill PTA and the Somerville Educators Union,” Scott said. “They are showing up for Somerville’s kids in a way that city government has failed to.”

Systemic failures such as this one are predictable, Scott said. “I have emails from exactly a year ago from parents at Winter Hill saying the conditions are terrible, and something is going to go wrong,” Scott said. “Now they are emailing me a year later saying ‘We told you so.’ Where is the emergency plan?”

A challenge in funding school building improvements, Scott said, is that in Somerville’s strong mayoral system, only the mayor can direct funding to capital project investments such as a new school building.

Prioritizing projects

Scott, referring to other current Somerville capital projects, said he would “continue to advocate for school maintenance and construction over the construction of a new $100 million police station or improved city offices for employees who are perfectly capable of working from home.”

Tara Murphy, a middle school science teacher at the Winter Hill, came to the rally with her son, Sean, a second-grader at the school.

“I don’t want someone to get hurt,” Murphy said. “And kids should be in school.”