Sunday, July 21, 2024

Somerville’s Winter Hill Community Innovation School is empty on Friday for safety concerns. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Winter Hill Community Innovation School building in Somerville will close for the rest of the school year, displacing more than 400 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. Officials announced the closing Friday among the school community.

After a piece of concrete fell on a stairwell of the 48-year-old building at 115 Sycamore St., which was empty at the time, classes on Friday were canceled.

Structural engineers reviewed the damage and determined it was unsafe to return for the year.

“The district and the city have been working since yesterday on a relocation plan for all Winter Hill classrooms,” interim superintendent Jeff Curley said in an email to families on Friday.

Update on June 5, 2023: The city on Sunday identified the sites that will host classrooms through the end of the school year starting Thursday. Aim classrooms will move to the Edgerly Building, 8 Bonair St,; prekindergarten and kindergarten will go to the Capuano Early Childhood Center, 150 Glen St.; and Grades 1-8 will move to Tufts University’s Olin Hall, 180 Packard Ave., Medford, on the Somerville line, using a state waiver. Information is here.

Staff will return to the school on Monday to pack up their belongings and instructional materials, according to an email. On Tuesday the district will move classroom materials to a location not yet determined and educators will have a single day – Wednesday – to prepare their temporary classroom spaces for the return of students.

Classes will not resume until Thursday, according to the email. Winter Hill students will have missed five days of school this year due to the long-deferred maintenance of their building.

District officials plan a community meeting early next week to field questions from the community.

Questions around timing

The concrete may have fallen earlier than parents realized.

During the school’s open house on Wednesday, Lis Klock, parent of a Winter Hill kindergartener, noticed that a stairway was cordoned off. “I thought, I wonder what that’s about,” Klock said.

It wasn’t until Thursday evening that she learned via email that it was about tumbling concrete. Classes on Friday were canceled and structural engineers reviewed the damage, determining it was unsafe to return for the year.

In speaking with other parents, Klock said, she learned that the Winter Hill teachers said the concrete had fallen over the weekend and the stairwell was cordoned off by Monday – but the school had remained open earlier in the week without communication to families about safety issues. “I’m not seeing an abundance of caution if our kids have potentially been in danger all week long,” Klock said. “That’s alarming. You didn’t think to investigate this?”

Jen Stevens, the parent of a school third-grader, said “The school that is not safe to use next week is a school that was not safe to use last week. Yet we were there.”

“We’re scared and angry”

When Adam Lawson learned that classes were canceled for his children, who love the Winter Hill, he worried about how his family would balance child care with work.

“We’re scared and angry,” Lawson said. “It reminds me of that first week of Covid. How do we get work done with kids around? How long is this going to last? How will they catch up?“

What makes Lawson angry is that the situation was preventable, he said. “We informed everyone we could. If the city didn’t trust the loud and persistent complaints of parents and teachers, they should have at least sought building science experts and engineers,” Lawson said.

Winter Hill families and educators spoke before the School Committee twice this year, citing issues that included water leaking through the doors, broken elevators and extreme heat.

After public outcry, city officials submitted a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority in the hopes of securing funding for the renovation or reconstruction of the Winter Hill. In the statement, district officials described interruptions to “a standard 21st century learning environment” including chronic issues with Internet connectivity and inadequate heating systems.

Innovation school

Despite these issues, the innovation school has seen increasing enrollment due in part to its specialized programs for students on the autism spectrum and students who have recently relocated to the United States. Of all of the district’s elementary schools, Winter Hill serves the largest percentage of students with high needs.

While he once worried about the safety of his children’s building, Lawson now has a concern about the interruption of his children’s education.

The Winter Hill is well-attended in the summer, Lawson said. Many children use that time to catch up in areas where they are falling behind. His son, Clifford, a Winter Hill kindergartner, was scheduled to get physical therapy at the school twice a week over the summer.

But now?

“Who knows?” Lawson said.