Getting a feeling for middle school life in Concord – old, hot building and all

  • Graham Szuksta, 3, looks up at the ceiling as his parents, Haley and Scott, take the tour at Rundlett Middle School on Tuesday. Music teacher Nathan Therrien (right) walked the Szukstas around the building and assisted with a question and answer session. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • A sign directs participants to the area where the Rundlett Middle School building project meeting was being held on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Project Director Laura Wernick from the architectural firm HMFM explains the deficiencies of the present Rundlett Middle School that was built in 1957.

  • The Rundlett Middle School project meeting started out in a room where pipes are on the outside of the walls on Tuesday June 8, 2021. Danielle Smith of the Concord School Board Capital Facilities Subcommittee gives a introduction to the Concord residents who came to tour the facility. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/9/2021 4:50:29 PM

Sweaty rooms, loud hallways and utter chaos are typical middle school scenes. An aging building from the 1950s doesn’t help.

For better or worse, parents, teachers and school board members revisited their middle school days on Tuesday night, sitting in the multipurpose room of Rundlett Middle School. A basketball hoop tucked in the corner accompanied folding chairs, tables and a projector.

They experienced first-hand some of the school’s shortcomings, including its poor acoustics, as well its outdated cooling and ventilation system as temperatures hovered in the 80s both inside and out.

“Do you hear the rain?” asked Laura Wernick, the project director from the Cambridge, Mass.-based HMFH Architects. “You shouldn’t be able to hear that when you’re in a classroom.”

Acoustics is one of many problems Rundlett faces. The school’s brick exterior is crumbling in places, all of its windows and exterior doors are in need of replacement, the leaky roof is more than 25 years old and no longer under warranty, existing plumbing is near the end of its life, and the building’s entire electrical system is in need of complete replacement.

The number of issues and their magnitude are so great that the school board decided in 2016 to explore remodeling or replacing the 60-year-old building.

Wernick and her team were hired in 2017 to propose alternatives for the future of the school. They completed an initial assessment before the process was stalled due to other projects and priorities in the district, and then the pandemic. After a four-year hiatus, plans are now back on the table after a school board vote in April.

On Tuesday, the group of about 30 people gathered for a presentation on HMFH’s assessment of the building, and to see for themselves the conditions inside the school during a guided tour. An identical session will be held Saturday morning at 10 a.m.

Tucked behind Abbot-Downing Elementary School, Rundlett is a short, flat brick building. Two stories tall, with long narrow hallways, it is home to about 900 sixth through eighth-grade students as Concord’s only middle school.

Through the doors of the nondescript entrance to the school stands a bucket catching water from a dripping, bubbled, wet ceiling tile.

“That’s our resident leak,” joked Katie Hosmer, a teacher at Rundlett.

Beyond the entrance lies one long narrow hallway with offshoots of classroom wings on the ground floor.

“It’s not the way a modern middle school should be laid out to support teaching and learning,” said Wernick.

For Hosmer, who has worked at Rundlett since 2013, the school layout also poses safety concerns due to limited exit points and classrooms lined up along long hallways.

Above beige cinder-block walls, painted ceiling tiles mask water stains. A painted iPhone and other designs by the students add splashes of color to the otherwise drab atmosphere.

Hosmer hopes to have her ELL students paint flags on the ceiling to add more vibrancy. Art projects and decorations are one of many ways students and teachers try to liven up the space.

Beyond the leaks and poor ventilation, the outdated architecture of the building presents challenges. Small details, such as the doors opening into the hallways, rather than classrooms, crowd an already busy space when hundreds of students gather in between class periods. Outdated lockers are too narrow to fit school backpacks.

Classrooms themselves are small spaces, with desks in rows with what appears to be a traditional whiteboard at the front of the room. However, the rooms were designed to initially house blackboards. The old slate is now covered by white shower boards, a cheaper material than whiteboards – easy for teachers to write on, but hard to erase.

With two power outlets in most classrooms, there are few places for students to charge their Chromebooks. Moving desks around and changing the classroom layout is also difficult for teachers.

“It sort of looks like the 1950s in here,” said Hosmer, peering into a science classroom.

And for 900 students, just a handful of working water fountains are expected to hydrate the whole school. Bathrooms are located along the main hallway, away from classroom spaces, turning a quick trip into a 20-minute escapade when students have a bathroom pass.

According to Wernick’s estimates, the cost to renovate the existing building would be roughly the same as building an entirely new space.

For Hosmer, whose daughter is a Rundlett student, the chance to envision a new middle school presents the opportunity to think about how she would design a space best fit to her teaching style, rather than continuously adapting to the challenging space.

And in reevaluating HMFH’s 2017 proposal, teachers can now incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic and how their teaching styles have adapted in the last year into visions for the school.

This process right now involves asking “if you could have whatever you wanted, what would you have?” Hosmer said.

For some residents, that means asking questions about safety, traffic and design of the school.

Christopher Nelson, a Concord resident who attended Rundlett in the 1990s, questions the proposal to merge fifth-graders into the middle school, which is one of many options on the table.

For him, the idea of 1,000 plus kids in one building is the definition of daunting, especially for younger grades.

“It is an important time in a kid’s life,” he said. “And it’s an awfully young age to be thrown into such a big school.”

Thinking about the district as a whole, though, the transition of fifth graders into middle school would have rippling effects.

“If the community considered the fifth through eighth option it would relieve pressure in the elementary schools,” said Kathleen Murphy, interim superintendent.

However, the district needs time to finalize school size, layout and even location. The first deadline is January 2022, when the district submits a letter of intent to apply for building aid to the Department of Education.

A finalized proposal, however, is due by July 2022.

Tuesday and Saturday’s meetings will be the first of many for community engagement throughout the planning process.

The project timeline is four to five years, according to Wernick, with the earliest opening in Fall 2025 or 2026.




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