Study recommends grade realignment

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NAUGATUCK — Closing a school is not among the recommendations of an architectural firm that completed recently a study of the borough’s 11 public school buildings, but grade realignment and construction planning are on the list of suggestions.

Greg Smalley of Hartford-based JCJ Architecture, which the school district paid $36,000 to perform the study, summarized the findings at last Thursday’s Board of Education meeting. His report was overshadowed by discussion of the system’s $1.55 million budget shortfall.

The Board of Education commissioned the study in July to help it determine how to use most efficiently its facilities over the next decade. Given its current financial state and the fact that district enrollment has declined by 22 percent since 1995, the board indicated previously it would consider shutting down a school building to save money.

According to the study, however, Naugatuck does not have enough space to do that, if it wants to create what Smalley termed “a base program” at the elementary school level. That program includes reserving separate rooms for art, music and computer classes. Among the borough’s eight K-4 and 5-6 schools, only three have computer labs, three have music rooms and two have art rooms. Art and music share one room at each of Andrew Avenue, Central Avenue and Western schools. At Cross Street Intermediate School, a former locker room is used for art classes; at Prospect Street School, music supplies are brought to classrooms on a cart, and art classes are held on the school’s stage.

Designating separate rooms for those disciplines would mean reducing the number of regular classrooms at several schools: four at Salem School, three at Cross Street, two at Central and one at Andrew Avenue and Hop Brook Intermediate schools.

“To establish what the capacity might be with each one of the schools, we use a student-teacher ratio of 20 students to every teacher,” Smalley said. “That allows you to go up to 25 or down to 18 and still have a fairly good ability to accommodate a bump in your enrollment. When we multiply that through by all the classrooms that are available, you don’t have the capacity for the elementary school kids in the buildings that you own now. So what that’s saying is you can’t establish a base program across all the buildings and get that student-teacher ratio.”

He said a base program could be achieved by increasing the student-teacher ratio to about 24 to one.

One of the most-cited parental complaints during three public forums JCJ held while conducting the study was that the borough’s current grade configuration—six K-4 schools, two 5-6 schools, two 7-8 schools and one high school—create too-short stays at intermediate and middle schools and too many transitions between schools.

The report includes several reconfiguration options. One is to return to the K-5, 6-8, 9-12 breakdown the school system employed until 2002, when it turned Cross Street and Hop Brook into intermediate schools. Under this option, those two buildings would once again be used as elementary schools. The key change would be to use Salem and Hillside, the smaller of the district’s two middle schools, as a two-building middle school campus.

Another possibility is to use a K-3, 4-6, 7-8, 9-12 alignment, which would not cut down the number of transitions between schools but would ensure students spend at least three years in a building, except during middle school. In its report, JCJ notes this grade configuration is better equipped than others to accommodate a population bubble.

During his presentation, Smalley recommended most strongly a third option: Use City Hill as the borough’s lone middle school, for grades 7-8. The Head Start preschool program, which occupies six classrooms at City Hill, would most likely move to Andrew Avenue School; that building would become an early childhood education center, housing the Head Start, School Readiness and pre-K special education programs. Hop Brook students would move to Hillside, and Prospect Street—the district’s most overcrowded school, according to JCJ—would move to Hop Brook.

Using that configuration, City Hill’s capacity would increase to 770 students, using an average of 22 students per class. The district had 778 students in grades 7-8, as of Oct. 31.

The study also identified the high school’s vocational/technical education wing as an area that “appears to be underutilized.” NHS has focused more on college preparation in recent years than it did in the past; the current freshman class is the first in school history to take only college prep courses.

JCJ suggests the Board of Education consider partnerships with nearby colleges, high schools or business, which might pay to use the space for their own courses and training.

The study’s most tough-to-swallow finding is that the borough should plan to replace two schools, an expensive proposition.

“The two buildings that do worry us—and I think they should begin showing up on your five-to-10 or 10-to-15 year plan—are Western and Prospect Street,” Smalley said. “I think both of those are issues as you go forward, not so much from the idea of being fundamentally unsafe or unsound, but I think they’re becoming a diminishing return on the amount of money that’s going to need to be invested in them.”

Neither school is handicap accessible, and both are located on such small sites that expansion is virtually impossible, according to the study.