WESTFIELD – The town of Russell and Westfield Public Schools have nearly finalized the lease and agreement, making the move from Juniper Park Elementary School to an elementary school in nearby Russell all but official.
All that’s left to do is sign.
Westfield Public Schools had a lease with Westfield State University to use the Juniper Park School. However, the university now needs the space, making the move necessary until a new school can be built at the Ashley Street site.
Superintendent Suzanne Scallion said that, though the lease is yet to be official, both Westfield Public Schools and the town of Russell are thrilled with the plans.
“All terms were agreed to, and now the lawyers are looking over the documents. We expect it to be a routine matter to just get approval on both sides for signatures,” Scallion said. “There’s mutual excitement on both sides about being able to find such a beautiful space, and for them the opportunity to have kids back in their beloved school. You can feel it. It was well planned, well designed, well cared for. It’s sort of an ideal situation.”
The tentative lease has Westfield students occupying Russell Elementary for an initial 18 months, with the option to extend in six-month increments. Scallion said that the six-month option is ideal until the new elementary school at the corner of Ashley and Cross Streets is ready for occupancy.
Scallion said that once the shovels break ground, she expects construction and preparation to take 18 to 24 months, capping what has been a “long, drawn out process.”
But that is now in the rearview, as both move forward.
The reaction has been mixed from families, Scallion said, though she understands.
“I think there’s great excitement about finding the Russell School, but this closing of Juniper has been on people’s minds for years,” Scallion said. “I think it had gotten to the place where people denied it, to doubt that it would ever really happen.”
Juniper Park has been a loved school, Scallion said.
“I think the transition needs to be marked by two significant events. One is honoring a beloved school – Juniper Park – and having a ritual around its closing,” she said.
Despite Juniper being a loved space, Scallion said that this has been a trend for schools that have agreements with universities. Schools like Juniper?Park with university affiliations have been forced to move, such as Marks Meadow, which had previously worked with the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
These deals allow university education programs to do student teaching close to campus, but there has been a shift to get students into the greater community, Scallion said.
“It’s not a surprise; it’s not a shock, but it was such a beautiful space that you just hate to see it change. But change is our world,” Scallion said. “The college has need for the space. They’re expanding and growing. They have big hopes and dreams for the use and renovations of the space.”
Scallion said that the school department would be taking extra steps to make sure that the families of Juniper Park, and now Russell Elementary, feel comfortable in the transitional phases.
When neighborhoods were designated for either Juniper Park or Munger Hill Elementary, one quadrant was placed at Juniper despite being closer, geographically, to Munger Hill. The six-mile difference between Munger and Juniper had not been considered an inconvenience for families.
With Russell Elementary an additional six miles from Juniper, the families of the affected neighborhood would be able to attend Munger Hill, if they so choose, Scallion said.
As far as the commute to Russell Elementary, Scallion said it is a “beautiful drive,” and that the major road is in great condition.
“It’s in better shape than many of our roads are in Westfield, so I don’t expect that’s going to be an issue. The plows will make the first cut through the drives for us any time there’s snow,” Scallion said. “They’ll follow the same snow days as the rest of us do. We really have to think of it as just another Westfield school that happens to be in Russell for the next few years.”
Though it is only a temporary, Scallion said that the landscape of Russell Elementary would provide excellent, unique opportunities for the students.
“Big open classrooms, great light, incredible views of the mountain. The school is nestled at the base of the mountain and the playground abuts the woods on one side. It’s just this incredible natural landscape. It’s a wonderful space for kids,” Scallion said. “The place lends itself to project-based learning, lots of good science and history.”
The only issue that Scallion raised was a lack of storage for teachers. Whereas Juniper Park had empty classrooms in the building, every room in Russell Elementary will be used.
An open house has been set for May 2 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for parents and students to come and visit Russell Elementary, Scallion said. Photos of Russell Elementary are available at www.schoolsofwestfield.org.