School closes after concrete crumbles
Parents uncertain where their kids will learn for rest of year
Hundreds of Somerville parents are unsure where they’ll be sending their children to school later this week after a piece of concrete “fell onto a stairwell” in a pre-kindergarten to grade 8 school, forcing it to close for the remainder of the academic year.
District officials alerted parents and staff Friday that the Winter Hill Community Innovation School would not be reopening as a “small section of concrete fell onto a stairwell inside of the school,” and students would be finishing their years elsewhere, beginning Thursday.
The incident happened sometime “this week, outside of operating hours,” according to a Thursday evening letter from Superintendent Jeff Curley, Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and Winter Hill Principal Courtney Gosselin. They did not specify when the ceiling collapsed.
Friday marked the first day of the closure.
Uma Murugan, president of the school’s parent teacher association had not, as of Saturday afternoon, received a relocation plan for where her 9-year-old daughter Tara will be finishing the third grade.
The uncertainty is sparking memories from when Winter Hill students attended Somerville High School due to the unsafe building conditions, including poor air quality, during the pandemic, Murugan told the Herald.
“My child is having COVID flashbacks,” she said, “‘Am I going to the high school? Oh no, not the high school? Then where am I going to go to school?’ I don’t know. Who knows? The mayor knows, but why can’t they tell us? My daughter cried herself to sleep last night.”
Officials on Friday said they hoped to share completed plans for the weeks ahead throughout the weekend.
A number of parents and middle school students noticed a portion of Winter Hill cordoned off before an open house Wednesday evening showcasing students’ work, Murugan said. A school official noted on Friday that “if you looked at that portion of ceiling a month ago, a layperson would not have been able to predict that the ceiling would fall down,” she said.
“That begs the question as to where else could it fall,” Murugan said.
Winter Hill serves about 422 students between prek and eighth grade, according to The Cambridge Day, which covers Cambridge and Somerville. The school closed for one day of class due to maintenance shortcomings in the fall, The Day reported.
District leadership instructed staff to return to the school on Monday to pack up their materials which they will then move to their new space on Tuesday, leaving just one day to touch up the new learning environments.
The Friday night news dump did not come as a surprise to the Somerville Educators Union which quickly shared their frustration on Facebook, calling out Mayor Ballantyne for her “shocking” “lack of urgency.”
“Next steps must come Mayor Katjana Ballantyne,” the union said. “It is time for her to match our urgency and expedite the process. We cannot wait any longer. We must move decisively to build a new school building as soon as possible. Our students deserve a healthy and safe building.”
District officials submitted a statement of interest in April to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for state funding to replace Winter Hill with a new facility.
The 95,000-square-foot building, constructed in 1975, is in need of more classrooms to accommodate its “increased enrollment especially in the specialized programs,” including those for students with autism and immigrants, according to the statement.
“We need to do whatever it takes, in the short and long term to create the buildings that our students & educators deserve, especially right now the Winter Hill,” City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen said Saturday via Facebook. “While we have made important progress advancing these efforts this year, it clearly isn’t good enough.”
Murugan said she’s glad her daughter goes to the school because of its community but noted how deans of students and special education teachers are working out of closets and how communication travels from room to room very easily due to paper thin walls.
“We have gotten the attention finally,” Murugan said. “It’s now a question of ‘How quickly can they decide to actually spend the money and get our school rebuilt?’ They can find the money, if you ask me, if they have the political will.”