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Task force knows potential of Devens’ Shirley School

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DEVENS — The Harvard Devens Facility Task Force met for the second time to discuss possible uses for the Shirley School at Devens.

Harvard was awarded use of the school for one dollar a year rental fee, along within the contract for Harvard Public Schools to educate Devens students, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.

Harvard School Committee member Virginia Justicz said she took a tour of the school and feels the school is best suited for younger kids because of the height of the sinks, cabinets and other items in the classrooms.

“There are plenty of play groups going on right now with about 25 kids,” she added. “I suspect there would be a great deal of interest for early childhood programming. I think people would be willing to pay for it, especially if they’re currently driving to Concord or Leominster.”

Community Education Director Gretchen Henry said that years ago she had done a townwide survey in Harvard.

“Not only did it give us input that yes, there was interest,” she said. “But you also found out what kind of services they would like.”

The school was previously used for the Ayer, Shirley and Devens Family Partnership, providing morning, evening and weekend programs.

“We have to have tiers of priorities,” Harvard Superintendent of Schools Thomas Jefferson said. “Our first priority is the education of Harvard and Devens students. The second is the community of Harvard and Devens. The third priority would be the surrounding towns.”

The task force needs to make the right decisions regarding the building, Jefferson added.

“We need to be looking for the critical mass of people to have the building turn on the heat,” he said. “Also, we need to make sure the numbers allow us to have a receptionist in the building at all times, along with a nurse.”

The facility could also be used as a daycare center for the faculty members in Harvard, Jefferson suggested.

Harvard Elementary School Principal Mary Beth Banios said the task force needs to look at the building from a school perspective as well.

“We need to think about the space issues at the Elementary School,” she said. “This building has play space available and there’s a lot of spaces for occupational therapists. The challenges I see are scheduling to have services at both the Elementary School and the satellite site.”

With the state budget current cuts being made by Gov. Deval Patrick, Jefferson questioned the feasibility of staffing another school.

“The first issue is, is there an educational and financial benefit for these two communities?” he asked.

MassDevelopment Executive Vice President of Operations Richard Montuori told the group that what they are trying to do is not normal circumstances and that should give them a lot more freedom.

“You can be creative here,” Montuori said. “You have the opportunity to do something that has not been done in the state and become the model program for other communities.”

Jefferson agreed and said the group has the opportunity to build the most creative and extensive early education facility anyone has seen in the region.

School Committee member Willie Wickman asked Henry if the survey could be ready by Thanksgiving.

“I’m very excited to get the questions out there and see what the parents are looking for,” she said. “I would like to have the results by Christmas.”

Henry said with these types of surveys it’s better to wait until after the holidays because people will either rush through it without thinking about their answers, or will simply ignore the survey altogether.

Montuori suggested the group also consider partnering with Parker Charter School and Mount Wachusett Community College.

“We are one of the few school districts with a healthy relationship with the charter schools,” he said. “I’m very excited about this and all the possibilities it brings.”