HAVERHILL — “And now, the rest of the story.”
It was late radioman Paul Harvey’s famous catchphrase that Superintendent James Scully relayed to the City Council Tuesday night prior to his report on the start of the school year.
Entering his eighth and possibly final year as head of the city’s schools, Scully informed the council that while the district’s over 8,000 students are settling into their courses and that applications for new teachers are “up dramatically,” a growing student population will force the city to do some adjusting, as well.
Projects, such as the proposed expansion of Consentino Middle School on Washington Street, will be needed more than ever — and it appears the state may be inclined to help sooner than later.
Scully said the Massachusetts School Building Authority informed him via email Tuesday it will visit the district to look into the Consentino expansion, which the district has submitted an expansion proposal for.
“They announced this morning, saying they will be coming to look at the Consentino issue,” said Scully. The MSBA will ask for conceptual drawings of the Consentino proposal and completed population studies of the district.
In March, both the city council and the School Committee urged the MSBA to assist in helping to expand Consentino from four to eight classrooms and help replace the school’s roof.
An expansion of Consentino, which serves over 1,000 students, will help reduce overcrowding in other school’s near the city’s urban core.
“When I came here in 2010, we had 7,451 students. As of 2 p.m. this afternoon, we had 8,136 students,” said Scully. “Most urban school systems are declining. That’s not happening in Haverhill.”
The improving reputation of the city’s schools is one of the main contributing factors in the increase of enrollment in city schools, Scully said.
Unfortunately, the number of students in the district who come from low-income families is quickly rising.
“Back in 2010, we had a 42.4 percent rate. Today, that number touches 67 percent,” lamented Scully. “The challenges dealing with the population have changed dramatically ... it requires more dollars, more services and more people.”
“We have a growing student population and more demands for smaller classrooms because of the diverse population we serve, not only linguistically but educationally,” he continued.
The growth of student populations in the lower Mount Washington neighborhood, as well as the city’s Bradford section, has been rapid in recent years.
The Mount Washington increases have forced the district to move students between the Bartlett, Tilton, Consentino and Greenleaf Schools. The Bradford increases necessitated the construction of a new Hunking School building, which is enjoying its first year in operation.
Currently, the MSBA has several multi-million dollar school projects underway or soon-to-be underway in the eastern part of the state. City officials held out hope that the agency would at least keep an eye on Haverhill’s needs, especially following the departure of powerful State Rep. Brian Dempsey.
Even the most optimistic observer had to be surprised to hear Scully say that the MSBA would be swinging by the district soon to conduct its own population studies of the Consentino proposal, a development he said “shocked” him.
“I didn’t expect to hear from them for a year, given their projects in Lowell and cities with huge projects that are going to put a tremendous drain on state finances,” said Scully.
Councilor Colin LePage remarked that Haverhill’s track record of making quick work with school building projects — the $61 million Hunking School project was completed in two years — may bode well for the city, as it tells the MSBA that Haverhill will not drag its feet.
“Maybe they are looking at this as low-hanging fruit,” said LePage of the MSBA. “If everyone else has these huge projects, if we can be shovel-ready, with drawings and an idea, maybe we can get into the pipeline quicker than others.”
Asked by Councilor Melinda Barrett whether the city would consider leasing the closed St. Joseph School building on Oak Terrace as a possible location for additional students, Scully said he isn’t ruling it out as a possible solution to overcrowding in the city’s urban schools.
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