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Latin Academy parents unimpressed with Hyde Park school facility

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  September 30, 2011 09:57 AM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Parents, students, and teachers from Boston Latin Academy toured the shuttered Hyde Park High School building on Thursday.

After touring the building that the city has proposed as a new home for Boston Latin Academy, a group of parents and teachers seem only more convinced the facility is inadequate.

“It just seems that when you look at the facts — the hard, cold, square-footage facts, you have to concede that it won’t fit,” said Marla Smith, 44, whose daughter is a sophomore at Latin Academy.

Smith was one of dozens of Latin Academy parents, students, and teachers who visited the former Hyde Park Education Complex on Thursday night for an informal tour.

Some conceded the building was in marginally better condition than Latin Academy’s current facility on Townsend Street in Dorchester, but others cited cracked front stairs, broken windows, and other damage to the building, saying that if the point of the proposed move is improving conditions, this isn’t the place.

A teacher from Latin Academy, who asked not to be identified, conjured up the Greek myth of Procrustes, who would invite travelers to sleep in his iron bed and then stretch out the short people and cut off the extremities of the tall so they fit the bed perfectly.

“I feel like we’re being shoehorned into a space that is too small for us,” the teacher said.

In July, the school department announced plans to relocate the Latin Academy to Hyde Park and move the Boston Arts Academy out of the building it shares with Fenway High School and into the Latin Academy’s current space.

In interviews and public statements, schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has said the plan grew out of the Arts Academy’s need to expand but also out of concerns from Latin Academy parents that its aging building was in need of many repairs and improvements.

But from the beginning, families and faculty from Latin Academy have been skeptical, and sometimes outraged, by a proposal that would move the school from an admittedly worn building near the city’s center to a smaller facility nearly five miles southwest, near its southern tip.

Parents examining the building on Thursday cited the difficulty of fitting Latin Academy’s large classes — usually 20 to 30 students — into the Hyde Park classrooms, many of which were reduced in size during a previous renovation to accommodate smaller classes for students with special educational needs. And with some hallways being narrow and only four staircases where they now have 10, parents asked if their children would even be safe in this building in an emergency.

Saundra Knight, a Mattapan resident and mother of a Latin Academy seventh-grader, echoed the thoughts of many parents touring the Hyde Park complex when she said, “I don’t think this school’s that bad. I just don’t think it’s big enough.”

Some objections were subjective, but Marla Smith believed she could make the argument best with hard facts.

Using figures from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Smith put together a chart listing Latin Academy alongside the Arts Academy, the Hyde Park Education Complex, the three small schools housed in the complex there before its closure, and 17 other school facilities from around the district.

The chart lists the square feet of each, the number of students, and the square feet per student, with Latin Academy, the Arts Academy, Fenway High School, the schools of the Hyde Park Complex all coming in right around 184 square feet per student. If the Latin Academy were to move to Hyde Park, by Smith’s calculations, it would have 106 square feet per student, a lower ratio than any other school on the list.

She wasn’t alone in wanting to quantify the space available in the school. Several parents came equipped with architectural drawings and tape measures, determined to figure out the exact dimensions of classrooms not clearly marked on the plans.

Smith stressed that she supports moving the Arts Academy to a larger building, that it deserves that opportunity to expand. She just doesn’t believe moving the Latin Academy into a smaller, less central location is the way to do it.

“I don’t think you’ll find a single parent who’d say it was an us-versus-them; it’s just why do you give them a home by evicting us out of ours?” asked Smith, who made the chart comparing school sizes. “You don’t raise up one community by stomping on another.”

The other issue dogging the proposal is the one central to any real estate deal: location. Parents who live in the city’s northernmost neighborhoods dread sending their children on a daily commute they say would rob them of hours of sleep and homework time.

Dmitry Smelansky, 46, has a son in ninth grade at Latin Academy. He said his son did a trial run of his commute from their home in Brighton to the Hyde Park school building, taking three buses, a train, and walking 10 minutes. The trip took more than two hours, Smelansky said, and that was mid-morning, not during rush hour. His son already wakes up at 5:30 each morning for his shorter commute to Dorchester.

Smelansky, an immigrant from Belarus who came to the US a decade ago, said Latin Academy was his son’s only choice to get a good education, but he would send him elsewhere if the school moved to Hyde Park.

“I will not allow him to go to this school,” Smelansky said. “To be honest, I don’t know what to do.”

Nick Rotondo, a junior at the Latin Academy who lives in South Boston, said the move would probably double his daily commute, and he didn’t see anything about the Hyde Park facility that was an improvement over the Townsend Street building.

“It’s not better,” Rotondo said. “They said it was better. It’s totally not.”

From the moment he and his mother pulled up in the car, Rotondo said, he could immediately see that the building and its parking lot were much smaller than those at the Dorchester site. Asked what he thought Latin Academy would look like if it were fitted into this space, Rotondo said, “Chaotic.”

Public Schools spokesman Matthew F. Wilder said Friday that the department has always recognized that the Hyde Park building would need to be modified to accommodate the Latin Academy. Analysis of the necessary modifications is ongoing, he said.

Regarding the disparity in the size of the two buildings, he said much of the space inside the Townsend Street building is used for administrative offices and other purposes that would not move to Hyde Park with the school.

The schools department will host another open house for Latin Academy stakeholders at the Hyde Park building on Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. The superintendent will present her final proposal to the school committee at its Oct. 12 meeting.

In the meantime, Wilder said, the department welcomes input from community members by phone and e-mail.

“This is all part of the process that we set out on,” he said. “The superintendent started this process … putting that proposal out there with this very intention of hearing from parents and the community that would be affected.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com. Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox. Follow Hyde Park on Twitter: @HydeParkInfo.

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

While some rooms are large and well equipped, others have been split into smaller rooms that parents and teachers fear could not accommodate the Latin Academy’s large classes.

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