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Converted School Building Houses Ten Compatible, Satisfied Tenants

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The brick and glass structure, built in 1959 and named the Florence A. Merriam Elementary School, sits back from the street among the trees.

On the school's playground, children put the seesaws and swings, jungle gyms and monkey bars to vigorous use. And buses regularly stop in the circular driveway to pick up or discharge grade-school-sized youngsters.

By all appearances, the Florence A. Merriam Elementary School is doing business as usual.

But it is not. Located in Acton, Mass., a suburb of Boston, Merriam is no longer a public school. Last September, its pupils began attending another Acton elementary school. The Merriam school, like some 7,000 other public schools in the U.S. since the mid-1970's, was closed because of declining enrollment.

Surplus Schools Converted

Labeled "excess" or "surplus," many of the closed schools have been boarded up or sold to private developers who convert them into subsidized housing, condominiums, or commercial office space.

But the Acton School Committee still manages the Merriam school. And because of an idea presented by school superintendent Robert Kessler and approved by the committee, children still play on the school's playgrounds, lessons are still taught in its classrooms, and food is even being prepared in its kitchens.

The 24,000-square-foot building now houses a widely varied group of compatible, "people-oriented" enterprises that have signed three-year rental leases.

The 10 tenants in The Merriam Building, as it is now called, run the gamut from a catering company and a Christian fundamentalist private school to an infant day-care center and an elderly day-care center. Indeed, the building's new "pupil" population ranges in age from three months to 73 years, and includes toddlers and teenagers, public-health nurses and gymnastic students.

"What we have tried to do with the building," says Mr. Kessler, "is rent out space to human-services organizations which weren't looking to make extensive modifications to the building. We didn't go for big business and big dollars. We went for rental income that would be a reasonable rate of return for that kind of operation.

"One of the biggest problems in renting a school," Mr. Kessler adds, "is that you must work within rather severe zoning restrictions. Obviously that limitation precludes a fast-food francise as any part of the solution."

The renters have a common reason for moving to The Merriam Building: the need for space--either more space or better space. But some also mention the benefits of interaction with other tenants--older students tutoring younger students, an intergenerational approach to learning.

The Imago School, founded in 1980, spent most of its first year looking for adequate facilities before learning of Merriam. "Imago" is the Latin word for image, and the school adopted that name because its philosophy of education is rooted in the belief that people are "created in the image of God," according to the school's vice principal and administrator, Joodi Ward.

"When we heard about [Merriam]," says Ms. Ward, "we'd been looking at church basements and, literally, closets in church basements. For a variety of reasons, all those doors were closed. This building became available just as we had decided not to start up."

The Imago School rents three classrooms for its 14 students.

Renting a classroom in The Merriam Building also allowed the Montessori Country Day School to achieve an important goal: getting its 13 first, second, and third graders out of a church basement. Sharon Mittleholzer, the school's director, sees as a special benefit of the new setting the opportunity her students have to come into contact with teenagers.

On Mondays and Fridays, 15 Concord Area Special Education (case) Alternative High School students tutor the Montessori pupils in spelling, math, and reading. When they are not tutoring, the high-school students are in their own school, two doors down the hall from Montessori Country Day.

Interaction Planned

"Currently," says Ms. Mittleholzer, "we have no interaction with the day-care center downstairs (Serendipity Child Development Center) or the day-care center for the elderly (Acton Adult Day Care Center). But we would like to pursue that, and it's in the cards."

"They get to sit on the other side of the fence for awhile," says Katherine Quirk, a case mathematics and science teacher, of her students' tutoring program. The 15 students, ages 14 to 19, attend the case alternative school because of "histories of non-attendance, not being able to cope with a large high school, and needing a place where boundaries and structure are well defined," says Ms. Quirk.

The case school, formerly located in a church building, is housed in three classrooms that have been partitioned into six. It employs three full-time teachers, a part-time coun-selor, and a visiting counseling coordinator from a nearby mental health clinic.

The Serendipity Child Development Center was also located in a church basement before making the move to Merriam. "Here," says the center's executive director, Bobbie Hedlund, "we have classrooms, and we're not isolated. We can put the kids in tights and leotards and take them up to the Gym Nest [a gymnastics center renting the cafeteria] or down the hall every morning to sing to the elderly in the Acton Adult Day Care Center."

Ms. Hedlund employs 30 teachers for the 120 children who fill seven classrooms at the center every day.

Serendipity Sing

Katherine Meyer, administrator of the adult center, calls the Serendipity sing each morning "a very grandmotherly kind of thing that we encourage." She says that she hopes there will be more "intergenerational happenings" among tenants as they settle into their new location."Being in the Merriam School gives us new options for our program--access to school programs and young people."

Ms. Meyer explains that the adult center provides "both health care and socialization for the handicapped and frail elderly. The Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare is very interested in these programs as a means of keeping people out of nursing homes," she adds.

According to Mr. Kessler, the renters were found through "word-of-mouth" advertising. He says the classroom space was easy to rent, "but the thing that is a challenge is to rent out the cafeteria, gym, kitchen, and administrative offices--the special-purpose rooms."

These have been rented to four very different organizations: The Gym Nest, Kiddie Country Club, Chippie City, and Vaillancourt Catering Company.

Gym Nest, located in the former cafeteria, provides gymnastic instruction to more than 100 young people a day, from toddlers to teenagers, including some of the building's other tenants.

Kiddie Country Club is a combination day-care center and nursery school for children from age three months to four-plus years. It rents the administrative offices.

Chippie City, which rents the gymnasium, is an infant day-care offshoot of the Serendipity Child Development Center.

And Vaillancourt Catering Company, which rents the kitchen, caters about 75 business luncheons a week.

Improved Morale

The tenth tenant in Merriam, the Acton Public Health Nursing Service, had been located in the community's Department of Public Works building. According to Priscilla Greene, administrator and supervisor of the service, the space they occupied was so small that the nurses had to give shots to patients in the restrooms. "Clearly, morale has improved 300 percent since we moved in here," she said.

All of the tenants say they are delighted to be in Merriam. They meet monthly to work out such problems as parking privileges and playground schedules.

"Because so many schools are being closed," says Serendipity's Ms. Hedlund, "something like this, should be a model--not only for Massachusetts, but for the country as well."

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