BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — The School Committee voted unanimously last night to include fifth-graders in a new middle school the city is planning to open in 2017.
Committee members, including Mayor Mike Cahill, said a grade 5-to-8 configuration will benefit fifth-graders and also free up space in the crowded elementary schools, where fifth-graders are now.
“I think this is a really good opportunity for the district and for these kids,” School Committee member Annemarie Cesa said.
The vote was seen as a key step in the city’s quest to build a new middle school at the site of the former Memorial Middle School on Cabot Street.
The School Committee needed to decide on the size of the proposed new building in order to meet the timeline for funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The state is expected to pay at least 52 percent of the estimated $73 million cost of the new school.
The school would replace Briscoe, the current middle school on Sohier Road that houses grades six through eight. Officials say Briscoe, which was built in 1923, is deteriorating and lacks the space and amenities for a modern school. The new school would be either an entirely new building or a renovation and expansion of the current Memorial building.
Cahill and school officials hosted five public forums over the last month to talk about the pros and cons of moving fifth-graders to the middle school.
School Committee members said last night that they visited several districts with a grade 5-to-8 middle school model, and the reports were largely favorable.
“I kept waiting for that red flag, the one that said, ‘God almighty, don’t build a 5-to-8 middle school,’ and it never came,” School Committee President Paul Manzo said.
Some parents had expressed concerns about fifth-graders mixing in with older middle school students. Committee member Kris Silverstein said those worries will be addressed by designing the school as “literally two small schools within a building,” with a lower school for grades 5 and 6 and an upper school for grades 7 and 8.
Cahill said the plan is to “keep our lower and upper school middle-school students separate whenever possible.”
One of the biggest reasons cited for the 5-to-8 model was the chance to free up space in the elementary schools. If fifth-graders stay in the elementary schools, Cahill said the city would likely have to build additions on three of the schools.
“That would take longer at a greater cost (than building a 5-to-8 middle school),” he said.
Cesa said building a larger middle school would free up space throughout the district for special education students who are now bused out of district due to a lack of space for programs. She said the district spends $1.2 million per year on special education transportation.
“We have too many special education students leaving the district because we don’t have space for them here,” Cesa said. “They’re Beverly kids, and they should go to a Beverly school.”
Committee members also said the move would open up more opportunities for fifth-graders in band, foreign language and athletics.
Silverstein and committee member Matthew Kavanagh both said the feedback they received from residents on the 5-to-8 model was “50-50.” Lorinda Visnick said she got “very little” feedback, but the feedback she did receive from her Ward 6 constituents was “almost unanimous” for the 5-to-8 model.
Kavanagh said the model will only work if the plan is executed properly.
“To move your young son or daughter out of elementary school is a difficult thing,” he said. “If we prepare well for that transition, it will work well. If we don’t, it won’t work well. It’s all in the execution.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.