Deciding the future of K-2 schools

As concern grows over the aging buildings that house Porters Point (PPS) and Union Memorial School (UMS), the Colchester school board faces a weighty decision: renovate existing buildings or construct a new school.

While PPS and UMS teach some of the town’s youngest learners—kindergarten through second grade—both school buildings are over sixty years old. Cramped classrooms, often shared between teachers, and a cafeteria that functions as a multipurpose room stifle both teachers and students, according to Colchester Superintendent Amy Minor.

The school board has been brainstorming possible solutions to these issues for years as part of a long-term facilities plan. While they are still researching a solution, the board has whittled the pool of possibilities down to two.

“No major renovations have been done on PPS or UMS since they were built. They have the biggest need,” explained Minor. As far as building structure, layout, and size go, both schools are severely out of date. “The buildings are not built for these size classrooms. It limits our ability to apply the best education to our youngest learners,” she said.

In the first option the board is exploring, both school buildings would be fully renovated and expanded to accommodate the current students, as well as the town’s early education program, which would relocate from Malletts Bay School (MBS) to PPS and UMS. Gyms would also be constructed at both locations.

In the second option, the school district would sell the PPS and UMS buildings and construct a new, larger school to house all kindergarten through second grade. In this case as well, early education would move from MBS to the new building.

PPS and UMS are located at nearly opposite ends of Colchester, each serving different residents of the town’s wide-spread community. Both buildings were built in 1952 and opened to students in 1956, and both alternated housed the town’s early education program for a few years before it moved permanently. PPS currently serves about 235 students; UMS serves a similar number at about 245.

UMS Principal Chris Antonicci thinks that increasing classroom space and moving early education out of MBS should be the highest priorities.

According to Antonicci, the early education program relocated from UMS when the school started doing full-day kindergarten. “That’s when the crunch for space started,” Antonicci told the Sun. “Our number one issue should be getting early education back.”

In the current set up, kids are forced to move back and forth between schools–starting at MBS, transitioning to UMS or PPS, then returning to MBS for third grade. So much relocation is hard on the kids, said Antonicci. In addition, housing early education at PPS and UMS gives teachers a better opportunity to build a relationship with students as they transition out of preschool and into kindergarten.

One classroom at UMS pushes the limit for the maximum number of kids allowed in one room—750 square feet with a class size of about 21 kids. (Photo by Avalon Ashley)

Space is also an issue. While the rest of the state has seen drops in enrollment, Colchester’s enrollments have increased. According to Antonicci, the number of students at UMS grew from 192 to 253 over the last eight years. While kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms at UMS do not violate any state laws on the maximum number of kids allowed in one classroom, he said that they’re “skirting the suggested guidelines.”

One classroom at UMS is nearly at the limit—750 square feet with a class size of about 21 kids. “It’s just not realistic,” Antonicci told the Sun.

At both PPS and UMS, the cafeterias function as multipurpose rooms. This means that staff must hustle the kids through breakfast, tear down and set up for P.E., tear down and set up for lunch, and so on. “We hold a second grade graduation in here and a holiday sing-along,” Antonicci told the Sun in reference to the UMS cafeteria. But due to little space, they can’t invite parents.

If the board chooses to go with option one, Antonicci hopes for more storage space, meeting space, larger classrooms, more adult bathrooms, and a gym.

The school board is also exploring the possibility of building a new school on a chunk of land they own near Colchester High School (CHS).

“The community has really invested in the High School,” said Minor, listing renovations over the years to the school’s theater, cafeteria, and new science lab. But now she hopes to focus efforts on K-2. “It’s a wise investment to prepare our youngest learners to be successful, educated adults,” she said.

The school board currently owns a chunk of land down Laker Lane, by the CHS softball field. If voters choose to construct a new school at this location, the area would become a school mecca, as CHS, MBS, and Colchester Middle School are all within walking distance.

Along with hiring a civil engineer to research whether this land is even viable for construction, the board is also exploring what kind of traffic impacts the added cars might contribute. The town plans to put a stoplight at the intersection of Blakely Road and Laker Lane; hypothetically, this could alleviate added traffic. Another possibility, Minor said, would be to construct a road out of the back of Laker Lane to let out on Malletts Bay Avenue, avoiding busy Blakely Road.

Should the town move ahead with separate plans to build a community center and park in the bayside area, the hypothetical new school would be more conveniently located to such resources as other schools, the police department, and the community center.

The board is working with an architect and a civil engineer to explore both options.

Antonicci hopes that the board chooses to renovate the current facilities, rather than construct a new building. “I know every kid’s name,” said Antonicci. “I think you’d lose that small, family feel.” With 600 odd students in one building, would some kids end up falling through the cracks?

Either way, the board is committed to finding a solution. Minor has dubbed this school year a “research year” and stressed that the board is not ready to move forward on either of the two options.

“The school board knows that they need to do their homework,” said Minor. “They need community input before anything is put on a ballot for a vote.”