After an emergency shutdown of their building, hundreds of elementary and middle school students are finishing the school year in the university’s Olin Hall
Greeted by blue and white balloons, waves from Jumbo the mascot, and applause from well-wishers, about 400 Somerville Public Schools students, teachers, and staff arrived on the university’s Medford/Somerville campus this morning to settle into the classrooms where they will finish out their school year.
Students and educators from the K-8 Winter Hill Community Innovation School (WHCIS) found themselves without learning spaces last week when their school had to shut down unexpectedly. On May 29, a piece of concrete fell in a stairwell while the school was closed, prompting a structural review by engineers. The initial findings led administrators to close the school on June 2 for at least the rest of the school year.
That morning, a Friday, Somerville Public Schools Interim Superintendent Jeff Curley called Tufts for assistance in relocating the students and quickly received assurances from President Anthony P. Monaco that the university was eager to help.
By Sunday, a plan was in place. The Winter Hill school would move furniture and classroom materials into Tufts’ Olin Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday so that the space would be ready for students today. Under the plan, the students will be able to complete their school year as scheduled on June 16, without makeup days.
“Tufts has always been committed in our duty to be a responsible neighbor and support our host communities,” Monaco said. “During COVID, our team had the expertise to create the testing program that would allow Somerville Public School students to continue their schooling in-person. Today, we are happy to continue that partnership and welcome the students from the Winter Hill School to our campus, and help the children fully access their education.”
The aim is to make an unfortunate situation as comfortable as possible for students and their families. School buses will take students from Winter Hill to the Tufts campus each morning and return them in the afternoon. Breakfast, lunch (both provided by Somerville schools) and recess will be on the residential quad, weather permitting.
Classes for students with autism, as well as kindergarten and pre-K classes, will be held at other Somerville Public Schools buildings. But with the space made available in Olin Hall—17 classrooms plus rooms for a main office/teachers’ lounge, a nurses’ office, and a counselors’ office—most of Winter Hill’s grade 1-8 students will be able to stay together rather than be spread across the city.
“It’s an extraordinary situation,” said Rocco DiRico, executive director of government and community relations at Tufts. “We recognize how disruptive this is for the students, faculty, and staff at Somerville, and we’re trying to make it as welcoming an experience as we can.”
Groups at Tufts stepped up to offer extras, like greeting educators with bagels and coffee this morning and planning pop-up workshops by Tufts’ Center for Engineering Education and Outreach in the coming days. Admissions is offering campus tours to middle school students. There may even be some Jumbos swag courtesy of Tisch College.
Curley, the interim superintendent, said he was incredibly grateful for the partnership and collaborative spirit the university has shown.
“Tufts’ support during the emergency closure and classroom relocation proved invaluable, swiftly providing secure and accessible learning spaces for our first through eighth graders amidst this immense challenge for our families and staff,” he said, thanking all the Tufts people involved for their efforts “to make the Winter Hill Wildcats feel at home among the Jumbos.”
Jon Petitt, whose son Theo is a second grader at WHCIS, dressed up as the school’s Wildcat mascot, Jynx, to high-five the students as they exited the buses this morning. “The Somerville community has been incredible,” he said, gesturing to “Welcome Winter Hill” and other greetings colorfully chalked onto the sidewalk outside Olin Hall by supporters from another Somerville school.
Katjana Ballantyne, the mayor of Somerville, said Tufts’ willingness to go above and beyond to accommodate the school’s needs reflected the true essence of partnership.
“In Somerville, we pride ourselves on striving to be good neighbors, and by reaching out a helping hand to the WHCIS when it is needed most, Tufts is modeling what being a good neighbor truly means,” she said. “I would like to extend my deepest appreciation to President Tony Monaco and the entire Tufts University community for stepping up to help us support the well-being and education of our students.”
DiRico said the pandemic showed that Tufts was willing and able to reconfigure the campus and its routines to meet the emergency needs of its community. As part of its COVID response, the university used its resources to house medical personnel, police officers, and firefighters as well as provide refrigerator and kitchen space for hunger relief groups.
To help WHCIS, DiRico reconvened the same community support oversight group that had worked on those pandemic initiatives. Representatives from facilities, operations, technology services, transportation, public safety, legal, and other Tufts departments came together and talked through the necessary steps, from relocating Tufts classes out of Olin to moving in four refrigerators (including one for medications in the nurses’ office).
“Three or four years ago, I would have said this was impossible,” DiRico said. “But now we have a system in place, and I’m really bowled over by everybody’s willingness to make this happen.”