Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Winter Hill school, on Sycamore Street in Somerville. (Image: Google)

The Winter Hill Community and Innovation School at Sycamore Street will not be reoccupied,  Somerville superintendent Rubén Carmona told the city’s School Committee on Monday.

While assessments this summer did not show structural concerns at Sycamore Street, and there was insignificant airborne release of hazardous materials from the inspectors’ hammers this summer, the district has decided not to reoccupy that site.

“We need to focus our effort, energy, resources and finances on our new or fully renovated school that is coming in the future,” Carmona said.

The Winter Hill school closed in June after a piece of concrete fell from a stairwell ceiling. Now, officials expect Winter Hill students will stay at the Edgerly Building for at least five more years as the city works through its K-8 Master Plan. 

The committee met after a Nov. 9 community meeting about the Sycamore Street building at which officials also heard from city auditor Edward Bean. He emphasized the importance of the district going through the Massachusetts School Building Authority to offset the high costs of construction at a school.

Due to increased lending interest rates, supply costs and inflation, Carmona said renovating the building or constructing a new one could cost twice what the district initially estimated.

The district will know  by mid-December whether the MSBA will advance the building project, Carmona said. In the meantime, the district hosts another community meeting Dec. 5 to “formally kick off the community engagement process” regarding the short- and long-term plan for the Winter Hill.

The presentation Dec. 5 will include options for a Winter Hill school from an entirely new building at 115 Sycamore St., rebuilding the inside of the existing building and expanding it to include some of the Brown School population and a new facility elsewhere that “combines multiple school communities in geographic proximity,” Carmona said.

“Every decision that we make will prioritize the well-being and success of our students and staff, keeping the heart of our community at the center,” Carmona said.

Teaching about conflict

The violence in Gaza in the Middle East was another major component of the committee meeting. It opened with public comment from a couple of residents upset by the district’s lack of response to the Israel-Hamas war. The first was Rami Bridge, a district educator who implored the district to provide support to educators in teaching students and engaging with controversy.

Bridge noted that the sole communication from the district was an Oct. 10 email about the attacks in Israel, with no statement since regarding the attacks in Gaza – another communication came from director of equity and excellence Caeli Gallitano with what he called “generic resources about conflict and war.”

“The district’s silence sends a signal to educators that the administration does not have their back on this issue,” Bridge said.

The second speaker, Jamal Halawa, had his microphone cut off when he tried to comment on the district’s silence on the conflict. When he began to talk about his opinions on the conflict,  chair Ilana Krepchin said his comments were “not under the purview of the School Committee.”

Later in the meeting, Ellenor Barrish, the committee’s Ward 6 representative, said she would love to hear in a future meeting about how the district supports educators in talking about difficult topics.

In response, Carmona said Somerville High School principal Alicia Kersten has been working with the chair of the history department to curate information around how to address the conflicts and their complexities. Kersten will meet with community members and educators on Monday and students on Tuesday to gather feedback on what they’ve created.

“In my conversations with [Kersten], the complexities of creating empathy, understanding the complexities of the challenge that we’re dealing with and also making sure that kids are courageous in the conversations is something that they are striving for,” Carmona said.