School District Preschool Returns to Hood Classrooms

The Derry Cooperative School District will shuffle some of its programs in order to find a permanent home for DEEP – Derry Early Education Program – its preschool for children with identified special needs.

The School Board voted Friday, July 18, to move the Next Charter School into space currently occupied by West Running Brook Middle School eighth-graders, and to move DEEP back to its former home at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, in the space currently occupied by Next.

The vote was aimed at getting a permanent and adequate home for Derry’s littlest learners.

The changes in location are for the 2014-15 school year.

“Increased student enrollment has created additional space needs for the (DEEP) program,” a press release issued July 22 by Superintendent Laura Nelson, states.

At its rescheduled School Board meeting July 18, the board discussed options for housing DEEP so that the district’s youngest students would have the space they need.

The program had been housed at Grinnell Elementary School this past year, but strained the already-crowded facilities. The board weighed moving the program against the disruption to Derry’s littlest learners.

DEEP is a preschool program for children identified with special needs along with their non-identified peers. The program is free to identified children and available on a tuition basis to non-identified children. Special Education Director Chris Kellan presented the options to the board with Leslie Saucier, principal of West Running Brook Middle School, and Mary Hill, principal of Grinnell.

Kellan said it is difficult to project how much classroom space will be needed. “Recently, I’ve been receiving much shorter notice that we will be having identified students,” he told the board and television audience.

Saucier presented a chart with the possible changes to her middle school. The first floor hosts two sixth-grade pods and one eighth-grade pod, and she proposed moving the eighth-graders upstairs and using their four classrooms for DEEP. To bring the eighth-graders upstairs she would have to move an art room into a general music room and move the general music classes to a “lecture room.” To house a displaced computer lab she would convert a Spanish classroom, and the two Spanish teachers would share an office but would “float” from class to class.

“It’s not the best scenario, but it’s the scenario I can offer,” she told the board.

Hill said at her facility, DEEP was housed in rooms 109, 117, 119 and 115, the latter being “really congested,” she said.

She proposed moving the four Special Education and one English Language Learners teachers from room 107 to the art room and having the art teacher teach from a cart. ‘We could put the art teacher on a cart, store the art materials in the basement and have an art teacher’s work space in the back of the music room,” she said.

Hill acknowledged a few drawbacks to her plan. It does not alleviate the crowding for DEEP, she said. “Art on a cart” could cause wear and tear on the carpets as the art teacher pushes a loaded cart from room to room. She would have to notify staff of the changes, find a place to store materials, and install shades and locks in the new classroom to follow safety procedures. Like Saucier, she said her plan was not the ideal.

Board member Brenda Willis noted that the building is 50 years old and expressed concern about basement storage. “If we put musical instruments down there, the dampness will affect them and they won’t last as long,” she pointed out. “But I don’t know where else to put them.”

As the building is older, the classrooms are smaller, Kellan said. If there were larger rooms at Grinnell he could do some creative space-sharing, but as it is, “it’s very limiting,” he said.

Nelson said the classrooms at Grinnell are 600 square feet, while the ones at West Running Brook are 900 square feet.

Many of the rooms at Grinnell already do double duty, Hill said, adding, “We do a lot of ‘subletting.’”

The DEEP program was originally housed at Hood, in space currently occupied by the Next Charter School. Member Wendy Smith asked if it were possible to move DEEP back to Hood.

“It is one of our more optimal spaces,” Kellan said.

Board chairman Neal Ochs pressed for a once-and-for-all solution. “I don’t want to see things moved twice,” he said. “Is West Running Brook the best solution or a stopgap?”

“It would be a stopgap,” Nelson said. “It’s not adequate space and it’s not designed for a preschool program. There won’t be a playground.”

She too pressed for a solution, noting that “DEEP has had five homes in the past 17 years.”

Nelson added, “Leslie can make it happen. But it would displace DEEP and many students at West Running Brook. It is not an ideal solution.”

Nelson said she recommended keeping the program at Grinnell. The adjustments, including “art on a cart,” are not ideal, she said, adding, “But they’re more ideal than the other not-ideal option.”

The district is in the middle of a facilities study with a consultant, and the report is due in October, Nelson said.

Smith asked if the current DEEP space was in compliance with federal requirements. It is now, Kellan said, adding, “But if we identify more students, it will be a challenge.”

The space issues could also affect the integrated nature of the program, Kellan said. In order to have 18 students per classroom, he needs to have a 50-50 ratio of identified and non-identified. If more identified students come in, the ratio may drop and he may not be able to have the integrated program, he said.

Willis said she would like to see DEEP back at Hood, in a space that was designed for it. “It would be best for Grinnell and for DEEP,” she said. But that would require moving DEEP in and the Next Charter School out, she said.

Member Dan McKenna asked if the Memorandum of Understanding with Next would be affected by taking its space for DEEP, and Nelson said it does not.

Willis made a motion to move DEEP back to Gilbert H. Hood and to relocate the Next Charter School to West Running Brook.  The board voted in favor of the move.