The last time Newton built a new elementary school, nearly 40 years ago, cafeterias were optional, the needs of special-education students weren’t a priority, and having a television counted as technology in the classroom.
As the city embarks on plans to rebuild and renovate at least three elementary schools in the coming years, educators are discussing what a modern school needs and what kind of spaces will be necessary for the future.
The school district is working with an architect to rebuild Angier Elementary School, a 93-year-old building and the first one scheduled for construction. But Newton officials hope to use the design plans for the new Angier as a blueprint for future facilities, including new Cabot and Zervas elementary schools.
The architects have met with the district’s elementary school principals to get their input on the new buildings, from minor tweaks to major shifts in how teachers educate children. The three schools are estimated to cost a total of $120 million, and Newton aldermen are considering whether to ask voters to approve an override of Proposition 2½ to pay for the projects.
“There’s going to be variations for sure,” said Jonathan Yeo, a School Committee member and a representative on the Angier School Building Committee. “But we’re hoping some of the programmatic concepts will stay relevant over the next few years.”
Principals have started out asking for some basics, such as a properly functioning heating system, said Joe Russo, the district’s assistant superintendent for elementary education. And many of the changes will be determined by current building codes and state requirements, he said.
Angier, which was built at a time when students walked home for their lunch break, will have a cafeteria when it’s rebuilt, Russo said. The same goes for the other new schools, he said.
No more students eating in the hallways, or in their classrooms, Russo said.
The classrooms will be a roomier 950 square feet, instead of the 600 square feet that was considered adequate in the early 20th century, Russo added. And the gyms will also be larger.
But Newton educators are also discussing ways to update their buildings to reflect philosophical changes in education.
In Newton, many specialeducation students are taught in regular classrooms with their peers, and are occasionally pulled out for more individual instruction. But the city’s older schools weren’t built with special-education children in mind, and small-group classes convene in hallways and in converted spaces in the library or closets.
The new schools will be built with a series of smaller rooms. The initial plans for Angier call for six breakout rooms, a conference room for special-education parents and staff, a room for the math coach, rooms for the social worker and the psychologist, and a safe room for students who need to calm down.
Newton officials are also trying to plan for the building’s current technology needs and for future possibilities.
Several teachers use microphones, a tool that was initially introduced into the classroom to help special-education students who had auditory problems, but has been found to be useful for all students, and the new classrooms need to be wired for speakers, Russo said.
The new schools will also be outfitted with interactive whiteboards and be designed to accommodate more use of portable computers, such as iPads.
District officials are also debating minor tweaks. Should classrooms have a traditional teacher’s desk in the front, or a smaller counter and shelf in a corner for the teacher? Is there a way to have an outdoor classroom where students can learn about the environment? Should the students’ personal cubicles be in the classroom, or in the hallway, to save space?
Still, some fundamentals of an elementary school won’t change, even with new technology, said Loreta Lamberti, who has been the principal at Angier for five years and taught at the school for 20 years.
The library may include more computers and tables for group projects, but it will still be stacked with books, Lamberti said.
Children are using iPads and Nooks at younger ages, but to teach reading, nothing quite beats a book like “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel,” Lamberti said.
“There’s nothing like having the books in your hand,” she said.
And while the physical space in a school building is important, education is ultimately still about the interaction between the teacher and the student, Lamberti said.
“I think certain things in education stay the same,” she said.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.