Schools bursting at the seams: A look inside Minot Forest and Decas elementary schools

Jan 19, 2010

They share small, cramped spaces, work out of converted bathrooms, and worry about crowding in the classroom. They’re the teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators of the Minot Forest and John W. Decas elementary schools. And they’re trying their hardest to do their best with what they have.

“People will look at the $24 million dollar [school] budget and say ‘I’m sure there’s places you can cut,’ but when you look at what we’ve done, we can’t,” said Minot Forest Elementary principal Joan Seamans.

Due to increasing enrollment over the years, space, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest challenges for Seamans and John W. Decas Elementary principal Aaron Viera.

Portable wings of classrooms are attached to both schools. They were purchased in 1984, used at Wareham Middle School, and then installed at the two elementary schools more than 15 years ago. The portables are designed to be used for a maximum of 10 years. The floors creak and sag and the metal structure peeks through the paint on the walls at Decas Elementary. Student artwork hides peeling wallpaper and patched holes at Minot Forest. Duct tape holds a patch of the original carpet in place.

The schools are outgrowing their buildings even with the help of the portables, which forces administrators to use all available space.

There is an entire kindergarten class in the geographic area of Decas Elementary that has to attend Hammond Elementary because there is no more room at Decas.

The Decas vice principal shares a small office with a gym teacher and the integrated arts teacher. He must find a private place to make confidential phone calls.

Teachers instruct small groups of children in an old shower room at Minot Forest. They share the space with towers of copy paper. The shower stalls are used to store gym equipment and computer peripherals.

The guidance office at Decas Elementary is housed in a converted women's bathroom inside the portable wing, complete with a fan in the ceiling, mirrors on the wall, and holes where plumbing once was, though the bathroom has not been functional since the portables were moved to the school. Three people share the small space.

The occupational therapy room at the school is divided off and shared with office space.

After budget cuts eliminated the librarian position, the Minot Forest library was converted to instructional space. It is shared by a team of 5 teachers and teacher assistants.

“It was the biggest place we could give them,” Seamans said.

Though there are still books in the library, students cannot check them out. The school tried to keep the library functioning with the help of parent volunteers, but scheduling conflicts hindered their efforts.

There are no art or music rooms at either of the schools. Teachers cart supplies to classrooms. Viera estimated Decas art and music teachers spend over three hours per week traveling throughout the school.

“The students aren’t getting what they could be getting as far as level of instruction and number of instructional minutes,” Viera said. “You can’t carry a piano around a school.”

To alleviate some of these problems, the principals applied for funding for renovations and additions from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) late last year. In addition to repairs on their buildings, which are more than 40 years old, Seamans and Viera would like to replace their portables with permanent wings, thereby adding more classrooms to mitigate crowding and free up space for offices, music and art rooms.  But while the situation appears dire, there is no guaranteed funding. 

The MSBA ranks all applications based on the severity of problems and allocates money accordingly, said Ana Miranda, Wareham Public Schools Director of Operations/Finance. Even if approved for funding, it could take several years for a building project to begin. Because the MSBA won’t fund two projects in the same district at once, it could be even longer before both schools see relief, Miranda said.
In the meantime, the staff members will continue to be creative and are grateful for what they do have.

“We have jobs, right?,” Viera said.

Seamans echoed this sentiment. Despite the condition of the building, “there’s still happiness that happens inside the walls.”