Winter Hill Community Innovation School prepares for the fall

Winter Hill Community Innovation School prepares for the fall

The city will decide whether to renovate or demolish and rebuild the Winter Hill Community Innovation School building after receiving a full assessment of the facility. — Photo by Maile Blume

By Maile Blume

When concrete fell from the ceiling of the Winter Hill Community Innovation School this past June, the city closed the facility to conduct a building assessment, and made plans to relocate students for the fall with students in grades one through eight moving to the Edgerly Education Center, and students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten moving to the Capuano Early Childhood Center. However, ongoing construction at the Edgerly building and the discovery of asbestos in window caulking in the building is raising concerns among parents about if the elementary and middle school students will have a safe place to learn by the start of the school year.

The asbestos is being removed from the Edgerly building according to a safe and standard procedure, said the director of Infrastructure and Asset Management for Somerville, Richard Raiche, at a public meeting held for parents and teachers last Thursday.

“As long as those materials are undisturbed or handled properly, they pose no threat,” he said, adding, “Construction professionals are well versed in the procedures to safely handle and dispose of those materials during renovations.” A third-party inspector hired by the city is also carefully monitoring the process, said Raiche.

The construction team has been working on the Edgerly building at a “breakneck” pace, taking on night and weekend shifts to make sure that the building is ready for students by the start of the school year, he added.

Parents and teachers at the public meeting raised several questions, including what will happen if construction at the Edgerly building is not completed in time, how students will commute safely to the Edgerly building in the presence of traffic and snow, and what the timeline is for students to be able to return to the Winter Hill Community Innovation School building.

When asked by parents what contingency plans the city has if the Edgerly building is not completed by the start of the school year, Superintendent of the Somerville Public Schools Dr. Rubén Carmona said that he is confident that the facility will be ready in time, and that there is currently no contingency plan in place. He added that if there are any changes to the construction timeline, parents will be promptly notified.

Parent Ethan Contini-Field asked for reassurance that the city will have a plan in place in case the building is not finished by the start of the school year. “This entire process has been characterized by issues and events that the city did not anticipate. We did not anticipate concrete falling from the ceiling of the Winter Hill, and as a result of not anticipating that, my kids missed four days of school,” said Contini-Field.

“We did not anticipate asbestos at the Edgerly and as a consequence of not anticipating that and planning for it, the AIM kids (students in a program for children on the autism spectrum) missed three days of programming and didn’t get to say goodbye to their teachers. We didn’t anticipate asbestos at Winter Hill and now our teachers can’t go into the building to get the things that they need to bring over to Edgerly. I need reassurance that you have a plan for when the next unanticipated thing happens, because every time we don’t anticipate something, it’s been the teaching and learning, and the students and teachers who pay the price for the lack of proactive contingency planning,” Contini-Field added.

Carmona responded, “We have thoroughly assessed all the options in the district, and there is no other space that will hold that large number of students. And so I am committed to making sure that the Edgerly will be delivered on time, and we will be able to keep all the community up to date on a regular basis.”

In response to a question on transportation, Carmona said that coming up with transportation options for students has been an ongoing challenge given the significant shortage of bus drivers. “That’s something that really has kept me awake at night, trying to figure it out,” he said. Carmona added that he is collaborating with the Somerville mayor to look into smaller busses or vans to transport students, but so far they have not been able to find these resources. “We haven’t given up on that — we’ll continue to explore any options,” he said. Carmona asked families to complete a survey about their transportation needs, to help prioritize seats on existing school vehicles for students who need them most.

Parents also raised concerns about students commuting on foot. When asked how students will be able to safely cross McGrath Highway when walking to the Edgerly School, the head of the Transportation and Infrastructure Division of the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, Brad Rawson, said that the city will be publishing recommended crossing routes, including the Otis Street pedestrian bridge and the Gilman Street underpass. “Those two, separate facilities will provide families the ability to cross McGrath without having to cross at the big intersections,” said Rawson. Additional safety measures will also be in place during students’ commutes, he said. These include crossing guards at the corner of Pearl Street, and the elimination of a travel lane in each direction on McGrath highway — making the highway four lanes instead of six.

Rawson also said that the city has been testing proactive methods for snow removal over the last couple of years, and will prioritize implementing these measures in certain locations, including the stretch of Broadway from Clarendon Hill to Sullivan Square, which runs parallel to the Edgerly Education Center. On snowy days, inspectional services staff will proactively document where snow has not been removed on this route, and a contracted snow removal team will immediately follow up by clearing those areas, said Rawson. “I want to assure folks that we take the snow removal very seriously in terms of safe routes to school for our students, families, and staff,” he added.

Looking towards the future, Raiche said that the next stage of construction of the Winter Hill Community Innovation School building will likely be determined this fall or winter, after the city conducts a full hazardous material assessment of the facility, in response to asbestos being found in a sample from the building. “Once we’ve done that next level of investigation in that building, we’re going to make all that public,” he said, adding, “It’s all going to inform the next stage of renovating the building or demolishing the building.”

Chief of Staff and Strategy for Somerville Public Schools Susana Hernandez Morgan said that families of Winter Hill Community Innovation School students will continue to receive weekly updates on the school’s plans for the fall. She also encouraged families to reach out with any further questions to [email protected].“We really appreciate your time, and look forward to welcoming kids back to school soon,” she said.