Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Edgerly Education Center in East Somerville is swing space for displaced Winter Hill students. (Image: Google)

The kids displaced by the closing of the Winter Hill school for safety reasons a year ago had plenty of feelings to share with Somerville’s School Committee about the buildings they learn in, including what a new Winter Hill school should look like and other more immediate concerns.

Students said they want working bathrooms at their Edgerly Education Center swing space in East Somerville, for instance. And no rats disrupting class. 

“A rodent-free building” was on a wish list presented to the School Committee on May 20, based on a survey run by the building’s eighth graders. “The rats, I’ve seen it firsthand,” said a student presenter. “It’s really disgusting. They scurry across the classroom floors.”

Their civics teacher, Megan Brady, who facilitated the students’ survey, acknowledged in a Friday interview that the building’s “younger students have certainly seen mice in their classrooms or hallways this year,” as rodents have been an issue in Somerville and neighboring Cambridge – and in cities everywhere. “When you see a mouse or rodent in your school, it is that very visual and palpable reminder of the infrastructure challenges that students have dealt with and are dealing with.”

The eighth graders at the Winter Hill have been frustrated by a disjointed educational experience. The end of their fourth-grade year was disrupted by the Covid pandemic, and when they could go back to Winter Hill, a dysfunctional ventilation system sent them to finish fifth grade on Zoom or at Somerville High. They had sixth grade back at the Winter Hill building at 115 Sycamore, but the building had issues. When it was discovered that a chunk of concrete had fallen from a ceiling, they finished seventh grade in Tufts University space. Now they’re finishing out eighth grade at the Edgerly.

“They feel a sense of urgency for a new building,” Brady said. She is proud of them doing something with their unhappiness about the school system: “They’ve really just embodied that idea that you turn anger into action,” she said. 

The survey introduced to the committee included responses from 304 students, 77 teachers and 221 community members. The students translated their survey into Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, and they had a picture-based survey for younger children whose reading ability is not good enough for the text-based one. They also used a ranked-choice voting method.

Action on rodents

Issues around Winter Hill, the Edgerly and more were taken up at a Wednesday joint meeting of the City Council and the Finance and Facilities subcommittee, with promises of problem-solving over the summer; in the meantime, city staff have been monitoring the rodent situation and has “extensive proactive vermin control measures in place for all [district] buildings, including the Edgerly,” a spokesperson said. “The City of Somerville is committed to ensuring a safe and healthy learning environment for all Winter Hill students and staff.”

There are no current 311 reports of rodents at the building, but there have been 10 reports received and acted on since June 2023 with visits by a pest control company, Munns said.

School officials are doing a better job of securing food products and trash receptacles. They’re also asking faculty and students not to eat in classrooms and on the playground. But it’s not all about the school: The construction site behind Edgerly Alley between Otis and Bonair streets “is a major contributor to the reports of rodent activity in Edgerly,” Munns said.

Other survey findings

There is more than rodents bothering students, though, and wanting a new school building for the younger and future Winter Hill students was a big reason why the eighth graders – who finish middle school June 14 and head off to Somerville High – pursued the survey project, Brady said.

Student comments showed they wanted a school with lockers for the upper grades, a bigger cafeteria and a gym. “They want stuff that they had in the Winter Hill now in this school, an actual playground they can use,” the kids said. “Playground space and equipment for their playground too, and a soccer field.”

“Some younger students just don’t want the school to look like a jail from the outside,” they said.

Somerville’s projected school enrollment is flat, but there is an increased demand for special education, particularly programs for children with autism spectrum disorder. The existing school buildings were not built for those supports. 

What wins for Winter Hill

The big finding was the wish to build a new Winter Hill school and repair the existing Brown school – the most popular of five potential options facing the district since Somerville was invited into the first phase of a process to get funding for school building improvements by the Massachusetts School Building Authority in 2023.

The five options:

  • A new and slightly larger Winter Hill school; a repaired and expanded Brown school
  • A new and slightly larger Winter Hill school; Brown and Kennedy schools combined
  • A much larger new Winter Hill school, merged with Brown
  • A fixed and expanded existing Winter Hill school, merged with Brown
  • A totally new school at Trum Field that merges Winter Hill and Brown

The survey found the first option was most popular: It’s easiest for drop-offs and pickups and preserves the existing school communities. The downside is that it will take the longest to build and does nothing to reduce existing school segregation.

Others expressed support for the much-larger new Winter Hill and Brown schools on the existing site because it would create a more diverse student body. The final option at Trum Field won some support for the same reason, although that site is considered harder to get to and will result in reduced green space.

Transportation and “neighborhood schools”

The second and fourth options had little support. Kennedy school teachers in particular opposed a plan that would eliminate their current school’s parking lot. 

Lack of transportation is an issue in another way: MBTA bus routes do not match up neatly with school locations, and many students have to spend significantly more time on transportation now that they are attending school at Edgerly. The students proposed a school bus system where they ideally would walk no more than 10 minutes to reach a bus stop, and a tracking app so parents can locate their children.

The students considered what people mean when they talk about “neighborhood schools.” “We think people like their communities because they are comfortable there, they are used to it, they have a shared history and identity, they can be scared of change or something new, they know the other people there, and they like the group personality and vibe,” they said in their survey report. 

You can read the finished survey report here and see the city’s page on school rebuilding here.