By Alex Lippa
---- — While city officials are pushing to build a new school in Bradford for elementary and middle school students, Superintendent James Scully said class overcrowding throughout the district is “the worst it’s been in some time.”
“We have no room at all,” Scully said. “Everything is jam packed.”
Bradford Elementary School may be the most packed building of them all. While there are actually 21 fewer students overall this year compared to last year at Bradford Elementary, the amount of space available for those students has dwindled, partly because of an increase in special needs students. The number of special education students has risen from 134 to 146 in the last year.
Scully said this is a districtwide issue, as most special needs classrooms are 950 square feet and designed to hold about 25 students, but are then limited to about half of that number to accommodate the needs of those children. Scully said that this year, three or four regular classrooms were transformed into special education classrooms.
“We have a growing number of special needs students,” Scully said. “That has caused us to add more special needs classrooms, which need to accommodate fewer students. That, along with computer labs and other specialties, has taken away from regular classroom space.”
Bradford Elementary Principal Wendy Stanley said 25 percent of the children at her school are classified as special education students. She said their biggest need is a "motor room'' for students in their developmental support classes to take a break from regular learning. Currently, those students are forced to share space in a room used by the school’s occupational therapist. A "motor room'' would give these students space to stretch out, walk around and simply take a break from the stress of the classroom setting.
“This is something that is desperately needed, as those students need time out of the classroom to regroup,” Stanley said. “We are meeting the needs of our children, but it would be extremely beneficial if they had a room that would be solely for a break, rather than being a part of the occupational therapy room.”
An additional classroom has also been added this year to serve all-day kindergarten students at Bradford Elementary School. About 25 students who would normally attend Bradford for kindergarten take buses across town to attend the Crowell Kindergarten Center because there are simply not enough classrooms at Bradford Elementary.
“We’re using every room and every closet,” Stanley said. “We don’t even currently have a conference room available, so we have conferences wherever we can find space.”
There are currently 1,590 special needs children in the system. That number includes students who only are in special needs part-time, such as those who take extra reading classes and those who are in special needs classrooms the majority of the day. In 2009, there were 1,470 special education students in Haverhill public schools. In that same time span, the number of students overall has only risen slightly, from 6,847 in 2009 to 7,112 this school year.
The result is larger regular classes, especially in the upper grade levels. Scully said class sizes in those grades range from 26 students to as many as 30. He said he would like to see that number decrease to an average of 25 students.
Whittier Middle School in particular has seen a sharp rise in students in recent years. in 2009, the school had 469 students. This year, it is at 501 students.
In the lower grades, the average class size is between 21 and 23 students, a number Scully said he is pleased with.
The squeeze in Bradford Elementary School could get even tighter, with the proposal of new nearby housing developments that could bring as many as 92 more students to the area, officials said.
All concerns about overcrowding could be eliminated if a new elementary/middle school is built. The school, which would eliminate the Greenleaf Elementary and Hunking Middle schools, would likely serve students who are currently attending Bradford Elementary as well.
The City Council has approved Mayor James Fiorentini’s request to borrow $800,000 to pay for a mandatory state study of what it would take to build a new school. The study would include identifying the cost, size and location of the new school. Fiorentini said the study will take about a year to complete.
Until then, schools like Bradford will continue to endure with the limited number of rooms they have available.
“We are utilizing every little space that we have,” Stanley said.