By Jarret Bencks
Editor's note: This is the first in a five-part series on the space crunch within the Salem School District. Each story will focus on a different school.
SALEM — At Lancaster Elementary school, school psychologist Meg Bentley works with students in a walk-in closet. The walls are lined with shelves stacked to the ceiling with supplies. There's barely enough space for a small table and three kid-size chairs.
Nearly all of the school's storage closets and hallways take on other functions these days, and the school isn't the only one in the district facing space problems.
As specialized reading programs, speech and language therapists, and school physiologists have become recognized as necessities in public schools, Salem school buildings haven't grown with the expanding programs.
The district is attempting to take the first step to address the space issues at all eight of its schools by creating a facilities master plan, which would serve as a districtwide blueprint, outlining needed facility improvements for the next 30 years.
District officials will hold two public forums on the current version of the master plan on Tuesday and Thursday this week. The plan calls for renovations to each of the district's six elementary schools and middle school.
Most schools in the district haven't seen any major improvements since they were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
The expectation of education from public schools changed in 1975, when the federal government passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it requires public schools to provide education to students with disabilities.
In recent years, the district has seen an increase in students who need these special programs, and it has caused a space crunch at schools, according to Superintendent Michael Delahanty.
The number of students learning English as a second language has roughly doubled in the last 10 years and the number of students with special education needs has risen about 20 percent, Delahanty said. Improvements in medical treatment have allowed for more physically disabled students to attend public school.
"Children have quality-of-life opportunities that certainly weren't available in the 1960s," he said.
Lancaster, which was built in 1967, is essentially the same building it was when it was originally constructed, but the functions of its spaces have changed drastically.
The school library has three work areas partitioned off for use by reading specialists. A storage closet with no windows to the outdoors doubles as storage and space for occupational therapy. The end of one hallway is blocked off with a piece of colored paper and one of its other walls is the school's only operating elevator. That created space is used for autism therapy sessions.
Storage closets filled with books and supplies, and libraries where class groups come in regularly throughout the day aren't ideal spaces for special education, Lancaster principal Adam Pagliarulo said.
"When you think of the population of students this affects, it's kids that need more one-on-one support and more help focusing," he said.
At the beginning of each school year, these space problems are especially apparent, as all of the school's students reading abilities are evaluated. During testing, reading assistants note if nearby classes were noisy, or if a student appeared distracted by the environment.
"How accurate is the information we are getting from that testing?" Pagliarulo said.
Bentley, who spends up to three hours at a time working with students in the small closet, said having a more suitable space could be critical to evaluation.
"It would be very beneficial. It would make the situation more controlled," she said. "Right now, I don't have control over the environment. With more space and better ventilation, I wouldn't have to deal with some of those factors that could play into the child's performance."
Part of the master plan includes adding office space for specialists, and additional multipurpose space at each of the district's six elementary schools.
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What: Public hearings on Salem school master plan
When: Tuesday and Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Salem High auditorium
For whom?: Salem residents