Eliot School Seeks Community Feedback on Program Expansion

As the Eliot School continues to expand its programming in crafting and fine arts, it has run out of room to adequately support its staff and students. The school is currently in a phase of feasibility research into solutions for this issue, according to Executive Director Abigail Norman. A very well attended community meeting was held on June 24 at the Farnsworth House to update the community on where they are in the process, as well as to solicit feedback about what the neighborhood would like to see out of an expanded school.

Norman began the presentation with a brief history of the Eliot School, saying that the schoolhouse was built in 1831 and offered a traditional grammar school curriculum. In 1842, a high school was created with separate programs for girls and boys, and the schoolhouse was leased out. The high school eventually became West Roxbury High School, then Jamaica Plain High School, and is now condos. The Eliot school eventually moved back to 24 Eliot St. and became a center for manual training.

“Photos from 1890 show the space very much the way it is today,” Norman said. She said the rising success of the school has come out of the rise of the do-it-yourself and maker movements, as well as online shops like Etsy. The Eliot School also has an external program where teachers go off-site and teach things like art and woodworking to students in the Boston Public Schools. The Eliot School serves between 500 and 600 children and over 1000 adults each year.

The school is exploring models and options to expand on the current site, as well as what it might look like if they relocated should expanding onside not be feasible. Ed Forte and Melony Swasey are the co-chairs of the board and Project Committee for this research project, and they took a look at the current space and assessed what its limitations are and what things it would need to be fully functional.

Forte, also an architect, said that the study is trying to “answer the question about how the facility can align with the school’s mission.” He said that current space limitations include failure to meet the basic needs to students and staff due to a lack of handicapped access, sufficient restrooms, and ventilation. The existing space is also too small for the expanded programming being offered, as they are not able to have all programs and staff onsite together.

Swasey said that in a previous feasibility phase, it was determined that the school requires about 15,000 square feet of space in a standalone building to support its programming. “Right now, there is less than half of that,” she said, at about 7,000 square feet. This includes 6,000 feet in the schoolhouse for classroom space, storage, and a little bit of office space. The rest of the office space and one classroom is located offsite at Thew Brewery.

She said that at the minimum, they will commit to physical access for everybody, accessible stairs and elevator, a welcoming reception area, adequate workspace for staff, safe drop-offhand pickup for children and projects, and proper restrooms.

The other side of the research that’s currently being done is seeing what moving off-site wold look like. Tanya Hahnel of Traggorth Companies and Jennifer Gilmore are part of the consulting team that is “looking for options that are financially sustainable for the future,” Gilmore said.

Hahnel said that the first part of this process was to develop the site criteria in order to know what types of spaces to explore. It was determined that the Eliot School needs: equity and access for all, a welcome and safe building and site, 15,000 square feet, a loading dock with access to a woodshed space, safe drop-off and pickup, on-street parking for guests and visitors, and public transport that is at least as good at what exists now.

While those are the necessities, the team also came up with some things that would be nice to include, such as off-street parking, space for modest program growth, closer proximity to other activities.cafes for before and after class and for parents while they wait, a yard/outdoor area, and possible retail space for artist studios.

“We are evaluating options inside and outside JP,” Hahnel said, adding that they are also considering Roxbury, Dorchester, and Roslindale Center. “This gives us a broad range,” she continued, to “make sure we’re really looking at the possible options that make sense for the school.”

Other things to think about when considering moving are owning vs. renting, a possible partnership or joint venture, and adding studio space for rent.

The team then broke the room up for a breakout session, where the public was encouraged to share ideas about what they’d like to see for the expansion of the school. Suggested ideas included putting the Eliot School in a housing development building along with something like a cafe to make it a more powerful development, partnering with higher ed institutions, having exhibition space for organizations like the Jamaica Plain Artist Assoication, a media lab, and having an outdoor space that promotes creativity. Other suggested ideas that could raise money and increase revenue, like a community room that could be rented out, a cafe, and a gallery space where works could be sold.

Though some people were open to the idea of moving the school, most people in the room felt that the Eliot School and the land it sits on are “jewels” in JP and any expansion should happen on-site. People were concerned that if the school were to move somewhere that was inaccessible for current students, the student body would change too dramatically.  Norman said that next steps include working over the summer and into the fall to evaluate sites and partnership models, then developing models for the project committee and board to review. They then hope to report out these results in the fall of this year. In 2020, the board will go on a retreat, where they will revisit the school’s mission and values, Norman said, and explore the options of staying or relocating. She said that assuming the board makes a decision after the retreat, there will be a fundraising and planning period with construction and a grand opening to follow.

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