(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
North End residents welcomed Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s recent announcement that the city would accept an offer allowing expansion of a popular neighborhood school. But some question whether it will be enough to meet a growing need.
Menino announced May 14 that the city had acquired a four-building complex at Salem and North Bennet streets for the expansion of the popular John Eliot K-8 School, which sits one-tenth of a mile away on Charter Street. The North Bennet Street School, a 127-year-old trade school that currently inhabits the buildings, will purchase and relocate to two adjacent city-owned buildings on North Street.
Israel Ruiz, co-chair of the Eliot School Family Council, expressed gratitude to Menino and Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson, and said parents are excited to learn more details of the plan and contribute their feedback to the process.
“The Eliot School Family Council looks forward to being a part of this process over the next few years, ensuring that the renovations take place in a manner that maintains the integrity of our children’s school environment,” Ruiz wrote in an email.
The announcement created excitement across the North End, where support for both schools is near-universal. But it also raised important questions that have not yet been answered. Parents and others wonder whether any additional seats will open up in time for fall 2012, and whether the new space will accommodate the addition of a third “strand,” or set of classes for the school.
The Eliot expanded from one class per grade-level to two classes in 2008, adding a new class each year, but the additions have meant sacrificing space previously used for a library, music room, and art room.
On Monday, Traci Walker Griffith, principal of the Eliot School, could not confirm details of the expansion in advance of a public announcement by Menino and Johnson at the school on Tuesday night, but she expressed gratitude to the teachers, the community, and Menino for their support.
“I think one of the biggest pieces to the whole expansion was that it was everybody working together,” she said.
Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, president of the trade school, said he planned to move some of its operations to North Street in time for fall 2012, freeing space for use by the Eliot School, and that the entire complex would be emptied by September 2013. He was unable to say exactly how the Eliot School will use the space, but he said the trade school would cooperate with the city on any transition plan.
Through the deal announced May 14, the trade school will give the city its four internally connected buildings, appraised at $6.7 million, and pay $4.6 million cash for the North Street buildings — the former city printing plant and Area A-1 Police Station. In lieu of property taxes, which the non-profit school is not required to pay, it will also provide a $20,000 scholarship to a local student each year.
Gómez-Ibáñez said refitting the city buildings and moving the trade school’s operations there will cost approximately $20 million more. The school has raised the money for the purchase price, he said, and has a plan to finance phase one of the renovations.
Gómez-Ibáñez also expressed gratitude to Menino and the city for enabling the school to remain in the North End, its home since it was incorporated in 1885, and said he was excited to help in the Eliot School’s expansion.
This deal, Gómez-Ibáñez said, is an example of what can be accomplished when the city works hand-in-hand with a private institution for the common good.
“I think it’s the most successful public-private partnership in a long time,” he said.
Through petitions, personal calls and letters, and their votes at neighborhood organizations, hundreds of North End residents had called on the city to expand the Eliot School.
Donna Freni, president of the North End/Waterfront Neighborhood Council, sent a letter to Menino on behalf of the council in January, asking that the city make no decisions about the use of city-owned property until the space needs at the Eliot School were addressed. She said the announcement of the expansion plans had “put smiles on the faces of everyone.”
“I have not heard one person that isn’t absolutely ecstatic about this,” Freni said. “The community voiced its concerns, and the mayor listened and responded in a way that really made so many people — everyone happy.”
The North End/Waterfront Residents’ Association also joined the discussion, sending a letter to Menino in May 2011 supporting the trade school’s bid to use the city buildings for its expansion and its own buildings for the Eliot School’s growth.
Stephanie Hogue, president of the residents’ association, has watched the North Bennet Street School’s expansion efforts for five or six years, she said, since shortly after she joined the association.
“When I called to congratulate Miguel, I said, ‘I’ve been waiting a long time to make this phone call,’” Hogue said. While she’s excited about the plan, she’s also concerned about how much the Eliot School will be able to expand, and how quickly.
“We want to find out those details, because if there’s any way that some of the North End children who are currently waitlisted could get in this coming year, that would be terrific,” she said. “Because I’m hearing from the neighborhood that we have already lost some families.”
Hogue said one neighborhood mother told her she wished that she had known before she sent in her child’s placement request that the Eliot School would gain some additional space in the fall.
“She said, ‘If we had this information, we would have changed the ranking of the schools that we requested for our child,’” Hogue said.
Menino’s announcement also offered little comfort for North End parents like Jen and Doug Bowen-Flynn, who live directly across Charter Street from the Eliot School. That proximity didn’t help their daughter Sawyer get into the school in the 2011 lottery, so the Bowen-Flynns decided to home-school Sawyer for the 2011 – 2012 school year. She has been accepted for the fall at the Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown.
The Bowen-Flynns are glad the Eliot will be able to recreate library and arts lab spaces that were lost to overcrowding and to meet the increasing need for space for its two current strands, but unless the school adds a third strand, the expansion is unlikely to benefit North End families like theirs.
“There are people who are without placement, who are trying to figure out how to get kids somewhere, and it won’t be at the Eliot.” said Doug Bowen-Flynn, 41, who teaches English at Medford High School. “It’s a great first step, but it doesn’t exactly solve the neighborhood’s problem.”
Bowen-Flynn said two of his daughter’s friends attend the Quincy School, so she will see some familiar faces in the fall, but most of her friends attend the Eliot, where she can see them coming and going from her bedroom window.
“Every day, especially this spring, she’s been increasingly sad about, ‘My friends are in school, and I can see them. I would like to be in school with my friends.’ And that’s tough for her.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)