During their tour of Port Chester High School on Tuesday, Sept. 20, the Bond Advisory Committee was asked to sit in an IB History classroom with 35 desks, an arrangement that was considered to be the normal size by Principal Dr. Mitchell Combs. He pointed out how every inch of space was utilized and how some classrooms were even smaller than this one. 
Casey Watts|Westmore News
During their tour of Port Chester High School on Tuesday, Sept. 20, the Bond Advisory Committee was asked to sit in an IB History classroom with 35 desks, an arrangement that was considered to be the normal size by Principal Dr. Mitchell Combs. He pointed out how every inch of space was utilized and how some classrooms were even smaller than this one. Casey Watts|Westmore News

In order to make the decision to change or not to change a building, touring it and seeing firsthand the problems it faces should be on the top of the agenda. That is why the Port Chester Bond Advisory Committee did just that during their second meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Port Chester High School Principal Dr. Mitchell Combs led the group through the empty halls, and while everyone admired the grandeur of the stonework, they also put on a serious face when looking at some of the makeshift classrooms. The first stop on their trip was the balcony above the auditorium; 30 seats on one side are used for science electives. The second balcony is used for students who need extra academic help. The only piece of technology in the space is a Smart Board, and the chairs were modified to have a small table attached to them.

The second place the committee visited was the auditorium and Band Director Bob Vitti’s office, which is often used for sectional practices – sometimes 15 flutists are crammed into the small office and the door has to be closed so the sound does not disturb the class on the balcony, Combs explained. The band also does not have a music room; they practice on the auditorium stage, which sometimes creates a conflict with theatre students.

The next area viewed was a classroom the district had to cut in half in order to accommodate the large number of students. The space used to be a large computer lab, but now it is divided by a wall so that one half does not have a door leading to the hallway. Every inch of space was utilized in the classes and desks were pushed up against the wall with just enough space for someone to walk through.

“This is not a regulation classroom,” Combs said. In fact, many of the high school classrooms are not the state-mandated size of 770 square feet.

The final stop was a classroom that was home to IB History classes. About 35 desks filled the space. Those on the tour took a moment to sit down and listen to Combs, who explained this class was about the normal size you see in the school. He walked down a row and had to stop and say “please put your backpack under your seat, miss,” to a committee member so he could walk to the back of the room without tripping. This demonstrated how narrow the rows were and how little room there was in a regular classroom.

The group then returned to room 219, a large space that is shared by choir and art students, for their meeting.

“We are at our capacity now,” Combs said. The average number of students in the classrooms is 27, meaning at any point during the day, every classroom is filled with 27 students if they are spread out evenly. Obviously this is never the case because the 40 students in BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) programs don’t come to the high school until the afternoon, there are lunch periods and some classes have a larger attendance than others.

“Added classrooms are important, but we have a gym and a band and auditorium space that date to the origin,” Combs said to those assembled in Room 219. “There are all kinds of limitations to what we have.”

Teachers also need a space. The high school is home to 99 teachers, about 40 of whom might have a period off at the same time. This means many of the teachers have nowhere to go for their break or to meet with students. However, Combs doesn’t expect this to impact faculty retention.

“Effective teachers can handle 10 kids or 35 kids,” the principal explained. “We try to hire as many of those folks as possible and retain them. But when they’re not teaching, where do they go? Every classroom is used. The library has 20-30 kids in it.”

“I don’t have room for 40 teachers,” he concluded. Some of his faculty sit and read in their cars, and Combs joked that the Starbucks across the street gets a lot of business from the school.

It has gotten to the point where Combs is planning on asking the Board of Education for some relief for the next school year in the form of modular classrooms.

In order to get an idea of what the classes and halls are like when school is in session, many of the Bond Advisory Committee members plan on taking a tour during a school day.

Despite all of this, the high school principal refused to say the number of classrooms he thought his school needed because he did not want to put a number in the committee’s head. However, he did say the school has 51 classrooms, three physical education spaces, two art rooms and one music room.

Combs added that if the committee wanted to get rid of the two classrooms in the basement and the two on the balconies, add a designated music room, a room for choir and art, and two special education classrooms that were only used for special education and not shared throughout the day with normal studies, then the school would need about nine additional rooms. The school also needs two new science labs, which requires the rooms to have gas and water.

Will the class sizes continue to rise?

The committee was provided with a future forecast about class sizes in the Port Chester School District. These numbers are only calculated predictions and might not represent the actual size of the student populations in coming years.

The Basic Educational Data System day enrollment data states the total number of students at Port Chester High School for the 2016-17 year is 1,435, which is 85 more than in 2015-16.

To compare, the Port Chester-Rye Union Free School District 10-year enrollment forecast done by Urbanomics, Inc. for 2014 to 2025 stated this year the high school would have 1,432 students. The same study predicts at its highest populace in 2019-20, the high school is expected to have around 1,586 students, which is an increase of 154 over this year’s data.

The same upward trend is expected for the middle and elementary schools, with their numbers topping out in 2019-20 and beginning to level off. The middle school will be at its highest population with a predicted 1,074 students and all of the elementary schools combined are anticipated to peak at 2,000.

However, the numbers are not expected to drop back down to what they currently are. The last year in the study is 2024-25 and the high school population sits at 1,559. The middle school is showing a decrease to 995 and the elementary schools will drop to around 1,894.

In total, the highest number of students the district expects to see in 2019-20 is 4,713. In 2024-25, the total number is expected to be around 4,499.

The next step

The Bond Advisory Committee is ready to look forward to future students. In a formal vote, the board attacked the question of whether they thought moving the ninth graders out of the high school and making Park Avenue School into a ninth grade academy or clumping them into the middle school were better options than keeping the grade in the high school. Currently, the freshman class is the largest with about 497 students.

Chairperson Ana Gonzalez took note that the committee approved the motion of keeping the ninth graders in the high school.

Therefore, with the understanding that they would have to build at the high school to accommodate the influx of students, the members pushed forward to create a plan.

They decided to do away with the different school subcommittees and tackle the larger problems as a whole. Subcommittees for athletics, the early learning center and energy efficient construction will still work towards gathering data and figuring out what is needed and what is not. Athletics will focus on whether or not to add an artificial turf field, a press box, an instructional space for instrumental/choral programs and a regulation-sized gym in the high school. The ELC committee will look at whether keeping the institution, which is housed in rented space at the former Holy Rosary School, is an economically wise decision for the future. And the energy efficient subcommittee will research sustainable building ideas. There will be some overlap between the large committee discussion and what the subcommittees bring to the table.

But every big decision needs a starting point.

“We’re going to have to start with the high school,” member George Ford said.

Pat Rinello echoed her sentiment from the Sept. 13 meeting by saying the high school is the flagship. Everything will trickle down after the board decides what the high school needs the most.

“It’s going to be a tough road ahead of us in order to accommodate its architectural integrity,” Rinello said, if the board decides to build onto the high school.

Therefore, the board’s next meeting will be all about Port Chester High School. They will discuss exactly what the high school needs and figure out how to accommodate those needs. This includes the possibility of extending the wings on the building on the corners of Neuton and College avenues on Tamarack Road. They will also be looking at Fuller and D’Angelo P.C. Architects and Planners’ drawings from the failed bond referendum, such as an addition to the north side, which adds a gym, three-story classrooms and a central entrance gallery, a three-story addition to the auditorium wing, which adds eight science classrooms and a music suite, two ideas of a single story addition to the field side of the building, which would add eight or nine science classrooms, a new gym and create a new library in the old gym space, and others.

They will meet next Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. in Room 219 at PCHS.

Committee members

The Port Chester Bond Advisory Committee is made up of 30 people. They are Rosemarie Barone, Joan Carriero, Thomas Ceruzzi, Thomas Corbia, Susan-Anne Cosgrove, Kenneth Force, George Ford, Ana Isabel Gonzalez, Stephen Greto, Gregory Guarino, Jody Helmle, Richard Hyman, Maureen Josephson, Joseph Lodato, Laura Luzzi, Heather Mateus, Kevin McFadden, Keith Morlino, Chrissie Onofrio, Denise Quinn, Patricia Rinello, Eric Rios, Elizabeth Rotfeld, Lou Russo, Jennifer Saunders, Debra Scocchera, Stephen Simmons, Patricia Sutton and Albert Wesley.

Gonzalez is the chairperson, Simmons is the secretary and Morlino is the alternate chair.