For Rundlett teachers, new building carries promise of flexible teaching, easier supervision, more storage

  • Rundlett Middle School principal Paulette Fitzgerald stands in the school’s longest hallway, nicknamed the “Rundlett Mile,” on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.  Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

  • Rundlett Middle School science teacher Michelle Ruopp works with a student during class on Tuesday. Ruopp wishes her room had a separate lab and classroom area, so she could experiment with more flexible seating. Eileen O’Grady / Monitor staff

  • Rundlett Middle School art teacher Somayeh Kashi in her art classroom on Nov. 16, 2021. Kashi’s classroom is L-shaped, making it challenging to supervise students in both ends of the room. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

  • Art teacher Somayeh Kashi, left, points out her classroom’s large windows which cause the room’s temperature to skyrocket, even during the winter months, while art teacher Kristine Nyhan and principal Paulette Fitzgerald look on. EILEEN O’GRADY / Monitor staff

  • Rundlett Middle School technical education teacher Jan Roberts holds a wooden model house that students build as part of the class. Roberts says it’s sometimes a challenge to find storage spots in the current tech ed classroom for all the student projects. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

  • Rundlett Middle School’s longest hallway, nicknamed the “Rundlett Mile,” on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.  Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/21/2021 9:41:34 PM

To use a hot glue gun in Stephanie Bednaz’s art classroom means first unplugging the electric pencil sharpener.

Bednaz’s classroom, the largest in the Rundlett Middle School art department, has just four electrical outlets. Once middle school students and their one-to-one Chromebook devices enter the room, those outlets quickly become a hot commodity.

“One (outlet) has a SMART Board, one has the glue gun, one has music and the other has my computer,” Bednaz said. “So when a kid comes in and they need something, or if I need to do a glue gun station, it’s awkward.”

The lack of outlets in the circa-1957 Rundlett Middle School building is just one of many challenges teachers have been balancing all year at a time when the district is considering exactly how it wants a new middle school to look and function.

Bednaz and her fellow art teachers, Kristine Nyhan and Somayeh Kashi, illustrated the problems with the aging building during a tour last week. For them, it goes deeper than mere inconvenience. The school’s setup often limits what they teach and how they go about their jobs. Because the electrical system can only handle one kiln, the teachers often come in on nights and weekends to load and unload dozens of student pottery projects, which each needs to be fired twice, to ensure they are done on time.

Kashi’s classroom is L-shaped, which means when she’s working with students in one half of the room, she can’t see what students are doing in the corner by the sink – something she feels is a safety issue. Kashi half-jokingly bought a circular driveway mirror to combat the issue, but hasn’t installed it yet.

“It’s definitely something that we have to consider as we’re doing any project. We have to consider those limitations,” said Kashi. “And I wish that wasn’t there. There are limitations that kind of hold us back from maybe expanding on projects sometimes.”

Old school

The Concord School District is moving forward with plans to construct a new Rundlett Middle School building to replace the current one, which was originally built to be a junior high school. The current Rundlett building has problems that range from a crumbling exterior to outdated cooling and ventilation system, to a leaky roof. On rainy days, it’s not uncommon to see buckets in the hallways, collecting the drips.

“(Facilities and planning director) Matt Cashman has done an amazing job trying to put Band-Aids and duct tape on this old building,” said Rundlett Middle School principal Paulette Fitzgerald. “But you reach a point where the amount of money that we would have to put into this building would be enormous, and we still don’t have the layout for the proper programming.”

But beyond the maintenance issues, many employees say the building falls short of the school’s current teaching and learning needs. For Rundlett’s teachers, the prospect of getting a new school building carries with it the promise of being able to do more flexible teaching, supervise students more easily and have more space to store classroom materials. For some, a new building could open up a new array of possible projects and lessons.

“We kind of make do. This is what we’re used to,” Fitzgerald said. “But when I think of a new facility and how much we could improve programming and instruction for kids – I don’t want to sound dramatic, but it could be life-changing from the education perspective.”

In the art department, Kashi, Bednaz and Nyhan do hands-on projects with the middle schoolers, who they say are eager for tactile activities after a year of remote and hybrid learning. But their classrooms don’t have the proper ventilation needed for some of the messier materials.

“We’re not the type of teacher who is doing clean art,” Kashi said. “We get in there, we’re doing plaster and clay. We really want kids to get their hands dirty. But that also creates its own challenges, and our classrooms don’t really meet that challenge.”

There is also very little storage space in their rooms for materials and student projects – a shared closet, a rolling drying rack that only fits in Bednaz’s room, and low shelves and plastic bins stacked along the walls, filled with projects and supplies.

“Having so many kids, we don’t get to work big,” Nyhan said. “I can’t store big projects. It has to either be flat or small. I would love to get kids to work on a larger scale, but we just don’t have the space to do so.”

Down the hall, technology education teacher Jan Roberts also struggles with finding adequate storage for wood projects. In the new school building, Roberts would like to see a tech ed space that has an attached computer lab, with glass windows that allow for easy supervision of kids in the lab and in the workshop simultaneously.

“Kids tend to be very fluid, they’re working back and forth, sometimes on computer stuff sometimes on the project,” Roberts said. “Our computer lab is down the hall, which makes it a little challenging if you got to bring all the supplies for kids who are still working on a project, while somebody else is moving on to the computer thing.”

The cluster model

Rundlett follows a common middle school model that divides the student body into smaller groupings called “clusters,” with three clusters per grade level and four core content teachers assigned to each cluster. The point of the clusters, according to Fitzgerald, is to make a big school feel smaller and to give students a chance to develop strong relationships with the peers and trusted adults around them during a developmental period when stability and connection is key.

But the school building wasn’t designed for the cluster model, making it tricky for the technique to work perfectly. Sixth graders have to cross the building from their core cluster to attend science classes on a different floor, since there isn’t a functioning science room in every cluster. Teachers usually walk them across the school to science class and back, according to Fitzgerald, due to the potential security concern of having middle schoolers make that trek unsupervised.

Fitzgerald also worries about the safety of the building’s long hallways, specifically one nicknamed the “Rundlett Mile,” which has few adjoining classrooms that students could seek safety in quickly if the school had to go into lockdown during a transition time. She also sees potential safety risks with the front entrance hallway, in which people who get buzzed in the main door are not immediately visible from the Main Office.

The conceptual design for the new proposed building, drafted by HMFH architects, is structured around Rundlett’s cluster model. The proposed design gives each grade – whether it ends up being a five to eight school or a six to eight school – an area to itself, with neighboring classrooms for each core subject.

“It’s perfect, because all the classes are together, there’s space for a special education teacher, there’s space for the school counselor,” Fitzgerald said. “It would just be like a dream, honestly, to be able to do that.”

Hot and cold

In her eighth grade English Language Arts classroom, teacher Linda O’Rourke has found a solution to the outlet issue by bringing in a wheeled presentation cart that plugs into the wall and has multiple outlets for electronic devices.

But the biggest challenge for her is the small room which doesn’t leave much space for activities or flexible seating, and the temperature, which has gotten as high as 92 degrees in the summer months. Since COVID-19 began, a window air conditioning unit has been installed in O’Rourke’s classroom, since the addition of masks makes the heat even more unbearable.

“I’ve had to bring a change of clothes because I sweat through it, and change in the afternoon,” O’Rourke said. “They can’t learn in that. And it’s not healthy or safe for them.”

In the science wing, the labs have had some plumbing issues. The gas, that the teachers use for certain fire experiments, sometimes don’t come out when it should and sometimes it comes out when it shouldn’t. Eighth grade science teacher Michelle Ruopp said she is looking forward to having updated facilities with a lab area that’s separate from the class seating area so she can try out different flexible seating arrangements.

“Obviously just updating the basics, but I’m also really looking forward to having modern ideas,” Ruopp said. “All the research leads us to set up a classroom a certain way, and it is not like this.”

A big meeting space

Fitzgerald also dreams of having one room big enough to hold the entire student body, in order to have full-school assemblies. Currently, Rundlett’s cafeteria and gymnasium are each only large enough to hold one grade at a time, and before current COVID-19 protocols discouraged gathering in large groups, administrators would hold three different assemblies for each grade level.

“If it’s Spirit Week, you want to have some kind of school-wide culminating activity to really get that school spirit,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s such a big part of fostering a sense of belonging for kids, that they are part of something greater, and when you can’t do that, it’s kind of hard.”

Before the plans for the new building can commence the district has several decisions still to be made, including a location for the new school, whether the building will be a partnership with the YMCA of Concord, and whether the school will include grades six to eight or five to eight.

Fitzgerald is hopeful that a new building will help streamline the teaching and learning process, and create a better environment for students in the future.

“Even if it’s subliminal, they’re kind of planning their future,” Fitzgerald said. “The more we can help them be successfully engaged in their learning, the better their future.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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