By: Conor Powers-Smith 9/11/17 at 7:12am.
Students and parents joined city officials for a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Horace Mann School last Thursday evening, celebrating renovations there that added new facilities and security during a hurried construction project over the summer break.
The Horace Mann renovation was one of three significant projects the city undertook over the summer to make more room at elementary schools in the face of a student boom. New modular additions to the Hoover and Winthrop Schools added a total of five new kindergarten classrooms, each capable of accommodating 24 kids.
“It was the most ambitious project we’ve ever done, and that includes the middle school, because it was about 16 weeks of work that needed to be done in 10 weeks, and there was no plan B,” said Mayor Robert Dolan after the ceremony, as kids and parents walked around the school to see the new additions. “It’s exciting, and it makes all our headaches worthwhile when you see the kids in here.”
The new rooms are already in use, which has relieved some of the space constraints the rising student population had placed on older parts of the school buildings.
“They’re all being used, they’re beautiful, brand-new spaces, so it would be a shame not to use them,” said City Planner Denise Gaffey, who helped oversee the three projects. “These additional classrooms have freed up some space in the main buildings, to give them more flexibility.”
The price tag for the three projects ran to just under $6 million. School and city officials have known for some time that more classroom space would soon be necessary, due in large part to the continuing influx of young families to Melrose.
“The superintendent of schools has been keeping an eye on the demographic trends, and noticing an increase in school attendance,” said Gaffey. “There was this wave of increase in student population coming through, so we had a community-wide discussion.”
Modular additions emerged as the most efficient solution at Hoover and Winthrop, where the grounds allowed for expansion. The additions are a longer-term fix than many realize.
“Everyone thinks with modulars that they’re sort of temporary constructions, and that’s not the case,” said Gaffey. “They’re permanent buildings, they have foundations.” She said the new rooms should last at least, “25, 30-plus years. We would expect to get a lot of use out of them.”
At Horace Mann, modular additions made less sense, since the property is more cramped.
“The decision was to, instead of doing modular additions at the Horace Mann School, to do renovations there,” said Gaffey. “We basically repurposed the first-floor administration wing, and we just flipped some spaces around to accommodate a music room and a library.”
Superintendent Cyndy Taymore said the work at Horace Mann was just as important as the additions at the other schools.
“We have a rising enrollment,” Taymore said. “We recognized the need for more space, but we also recognized that this building was missing some facilities our other schools had.”
The project also saw the school’s main entrance moved back to its original position, on Damon Ave., and the entry vestibule made more secure, with a two-door system. The entrance was also made more accessible, and room was found for a conference space and dedicated nurse’s office.
“The final results have exceeded our expectations,” Taymore said. She credited the city’s permanent School Building Committee with moving the process along smoothly, and said Gaffey’s supervision was indispensible.
“We have a history in Melrose, we have a very good process in place,” Taymore said. “Denise Gaffey has been probably the biggest factor in making sure Melrose successfully builds anything, including the school projects.”
The long period of planning preceded a flurry of actual construction, as contractors worked within the time limit imposed by the impending start of the school year. New playgrounds, parking spaces, and other facilities were added during the course of the summer as well.
“We really ended up being pretty squeezed for time,” said Gaffey. “I’ve been part of projects like this, but this was probably the most aggressive schedule.”
The city put various parts of the projects out to bid as early as possible, but the schedule still allowed very little room for error.
“The kind of schedule we had didn’t leave a lot of room for things that happen in construction, delays and things like that,” Gaffey said. “Through incredible teamwork between the contractors and the city, we got it done.”
Minor work remains, but the buildings are basically complete.
“The buildings were inspected prior to the start of school, and we’ve got temporary certificates of occupancy for all three,” Gaffey said. “There are definitely some lingering issues in all the spaces, but nothing that affects the safety of the school kids.”
A few new features have yet to be added, but city workers plan to finish the work after school hours.
“Some of the technology is still getting installed, for example things like whiteboards,” Gaffey said. “A lot of that’s being done by our internal IT department, so we have a little more control over the workers and the ability to get it done.”
At Horace Mann, a redundant system of two new boilers still needs to be finished, as other work was prioritized.
“Because it’s tied to the heating system, it’s not needed right away, so the contractors could put their work into the critical spaces first,” Gaffey said.
Planning for demographics decades down the line is always an inexact process. The newly configured schools allow for moderate, though not explosive, population growth.
“You get a range of estimates, and the demographic studies that you do will frequently be on the conservative side, they’ll anticipate more growth than actually occurs,” Gaffey said. “We decided in our approach to not plan for the extreme, because we didn’t want to be putting too much pressure on the grounds.”
Planners should be better able to accommodate whatever the future holds, though, thanks to the projects.
“With this program, we do have some flexibilities in the existing schools,” said Gaffey. “We didn’t have any flexibility before we took this project on.”
Alderman Peter Mortimer also attended the ribbon cutting, and praised the project’s planners.
“The new development at all three schools will be a great boon to the education of the elementary school students of Melrose,” Mortimer said. “We’re very pleased that the projects were so successful, and that so many people came out for the tour this afternoon.”
Mortimer said devoting resources to education brings more young families to the city, who in turn devote more resources to education, bringing in more young families.
“It’s cyclical,” he said. “When the city is known for its high-quality schools, people are attracted to it. Then people take great pride in it and want to take care of it, so the cycle continues to go upward. That’s the way it has to be. You cannot stand still in this world.”
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