New Wellesley public school proposal considers closing Upham earlier than expected

The Wellesley Public Schools have a lot of balls in the air.

Hunnewell school summerFirst off, construction on a teardown/rebuild on the existing footprint of the Hunnewell Elementary School in Wellesley Square is slated to begin next summer, provided the project gets the needed votes from Town Meeting this fall and from the general public at a special election in December. While construction goes on, students will need to be educated for 18 months in off-site swing space.

“The original proposal was for those students to be reassigned by grade level to the other elementary schools with space to host additional classes. A complex endeavor to be sure, with Hunnewell classes being separated, shifted to new schools, and then returning to their new school,” Wellesley Public Schools Supt. Dr. David Lussier wrote in an email replying to our questions.

Hardy Elementary School, WellesleyAlso on the calendar is a proposed teardown/rebuild of the John D. Hardy Elementary School, with a construction start date planned for next summer.

The new Hunnewell and Hardy schools are being designed to accommodate up to 365 students and 18 classrooms within a 6-school district.

Upham School, which along with Hardy was in the running to be revamped, ultimately was not chosen for a rebuild. The School Committee’s plans are to close Upham but retain ownership of the building and the property until such a time that the town’s elementary school enrollment increases to the point when a 7-elementary school model is once again needed.

At the same time, the district also has put into place plans for full elementary redistricting (slated to occur in 2024) upon the completion of both the Hunnewell and the Hardy building projects, and the consolidation from 7 to 6 elementary schools, with the closure of Upham School.  “Those plans were completed and approved in early 2020 and were part of the community decision to assess building a new school on the Upham vs. Hardy sites,” Lussier said.

upham elementary school fallAs part of these plans, Upham School was supposed to remain as the Upham School for another two years. However, many Upham families left the WPS system last year during the pandemic and enrolled their students in private school. During an update by WPS at the Aug. 31 School Committee meeting, it was reported that Upham is down to 175 students, 13 teachers, and 12 sections.

The falling numbers at Upham have led to a new proposal put together by members of the School Committee working on the building projects and the WPS administration. “Even prior to the pandemic, Upham’s numbers had declined to such a degree that there were single sections of some grade levels. The pandemic has only led to a further decline in Upham’s enrollment, despite district efforts to reassign students to that school,” Lussier said.

At a June School Committee meeting Lussier said, “…we’ve been dealing with significantly lower enrollment at Upham now for some years. In order to have a critical mass of students and to maintain a vibrant school community we are trying to use the tools available to us, and one of them of course is choice, allowing families to enroll.” To that end, enrollment was opened to families who might want to transfer their students there. Only 2 families signed on. Later, 1 of those pulled out.

During a Sept. 23 Zoom meeting attended by School Committee representatives and Lussier, the Upham community was informed of a proposal that could lead to the closure of Upham at the end of this school year, and an earlier-than-expected redistricting of that school’s students. Lussier emphasized to us that this is a proposal, not a decision.

Teachers and staff at Hunnewell and Upham were earlier told of the proposal, which has started to generate buzz across town.

Under the proposal, the idea is to redistrict Upham students at the end of the 2021-2022 school year and use the Upham building as swing space for the Hunnewell community until 2024, when the new Hunnewell is expected to open its doors. Under this plan, Upham will no longer serve its current community. Upham students would be redistributed to other schools. Lussier cites minimizing overall disruptions and transitions to students and families as the reasons for the change.

As laid out by Lussier during meetings, the proposal includes the following phased-in approach to redistricting:

  • Beginning in SY2022-23, Upham students would be redistricted to Bates and Sprague, per the approved redistricting plan
  • The Skills program, the in-district, specialized program that serves students on the autism spectrum, would be relocated to Hardy. This program, which draws students from across the district, was already slated to move to the new Hardy building, which is being customized to support this program.
  • Hunnewell students, rather than being sent to multiple schools during their school construction, would move as an entire school into the Upham building in the fall of 2022 and then return to their new school in February of 2024.
  • Phase 1 of this proposed early redistricting plan would only involve redistricting the Upham school.  The remaining redistricting plan would be implemented in Phase 2 in 2024.

Lussier said, “We can certainly appreciate the feelings of the Upham community to this proposal, which would accelerate the timeline for that school’s closure by two years. We would not be contemplating this approach if we did not feel it was responsive to each of the aforementioned needs while minimizing overall disruptions/transitions to students and families.”

This is all far from a done deal. “This proposal is being shared with the intent of soliciting feedback from the community before any decision is made by the School Committee to proceed,” Lussier said.

Upcoming meetings:

  • The Hunnewell community has been invited to a 7pm Zoom meeting on Monday, Sept. 27 to learn about “important updates on the WPS elementary building projects and their impact on Hunnewell moving forward.”  Supt. Lussier and and School Committee representatives will be on hand for this discussion.
  • Wellesley School Committee will have its regular meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 28 at 6:30pm. Among the agenda items: Swing space and phased redistricting.
  • A WPS community webinar on swing space & redistricting is slated for Thursday, Sept. 30 at 7pm.

Separately, the Wellesley Advisory Committee has been reviewing Town Meeting articles related to the school projects, including at its Sept. 22 meeting.

More: Hardy, Hunnewell, Upham Facilities Projects