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by Jessica Brophy
Three community members and eight school staff attended the second public forum on the 2012-13 school budget on Wednesday, January 11.
Several issues were discussed during the meeting, including the details of a minimum class size policy currently under review by the school board. Those present also talked about the realities of declining enrollment and ways to attract students to the schools.
Enrollment in the high school has dropped from 177 in 2005-06 to 141 this year, and is projected to dip to approximately 102 by 2016-17. Enrollment for the total school system has dropped from 530 in 2000-01 to 251 in 2009-10. Yet from 2000-01 to 2009-10, the annual school budget increased from $4.3 million to $6.3 million.
The first public forum was held in October, and included a variety of ideas such as reducing administrative staff, leaving Union 76, developing a minimum class size, sending high school students to other schools in the area and instituting pay-to-play fees for extracurricular activities.
Minimum class size policy
The school board has developed a minimum class size policy, based on concerns raised during the 2011-12 budget decision process. At that time, parents raised concerns about decisions to combine the second grade class into one group, and keep the fourth grade as two separate classes, despite the fact that both grades had similar numbers of students.
The class size policy under consideration, and discussed at the recent forum, recommends a minimum class size of 18 for kindergarten, 20 for grades 1-2, 22 for grades 3-5 and 24 for grades 6-12. This means that if there are 23 second graders expected for a particular year, the grade might be split into two classes. High school elective classes will need to enroll at least five students to run.
The policy also states, “Several variables will be considered in determining the appropriate maximum or minimum class size: grade level, subject, student needs, instructional methods, budget and available space.”
“The policy does not preclude unexpected situations,” said Superintendent Robert Webster.
“It gives the board flexibility,” said school board member Virginia Olsen. “It gives the board the option to set classes at a minimum.”
Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris asked whether the classrooms with larger classes have ed techs in them.
Teacher and Island Teachers Association president Judy Rhodes noted that ed techs in the classroom are assigned to particular special ed students, and do not help with teaching the class as a whole. Special Services Director Josh Nichols said it might be possible to involve ed techs in co-teaching, or in breaking the classes into small groups. Rhodes and other teachers present noted the difficulty of finding the time to plan and coordinate lessons for such co-teaching.
“You can have all the grandiose ideas, but you need time to do that,” said industrial arts teacher Dennis Saindon. “Small schools have tremendous challenges. I’m wearing so many hats that some days my head is spinning.”
Strategies to increase enrollment
The CSD has a high per-pupil cost at $16,836 per student, compared to the $11,037 state average. One way to lower the per-pupil cost is to have more pupils and encourage more enrollment, especially from those who pay tuition. School board member Skip Greenlaw suggested the high school look into becoming a magnet school for marine trades, industrial arts or the performing arts, or a combination of those.
Saindon said few teachers are trained in industrial arts anymore, and there are few programs in the state. High school principal Todd West said many technical schools have trades training, which can be similar to industrial arts, and he doubted students would travel to the Island for industrial arts when they could travel to a nearby technical school.
Saindon said a magnet school—or some sort of innovative program based on the CSD’s strengths—is a good idea, but would take a lot of planning and work over a period of time. “If it’s going to happen, there needs to be a real concerted effort to make it happen,” Saindon said.
Ways to encourage more students from Brooklin, Brooksville and Sedgwick to attend DI-S High School were also discussed.
Brooksville currently only transports high school students to where the majority of students choose to go—which is George Stevens Academy. School board chairman Mark Cormier asked whether providing transportation would make a difference in the number of Brooksville students choosing DI-S. Webster said the graduating numbers of eighth graders from Brooksville were in the single digits and may not make much of a difference in total enrollment.
West said the pool of students area-wide to draw from is shrinking. “That’s exactly why GSA has gone off-shore,” said Greenlaw, referring to GSA’s recruitment of foreign students.
Webster said some private schools have had success recruiting students from overseas, and some public schools have tried hard and failed—particularly Stearns High School in Millinocket, which received negative national press after trying to recruit more than 50 students from China and ending up with only six foreign students enrolled.
Technology coordinator Marc Ford suggested launching summer education programs, particularly in performing arts, to tap into the summer population. “They’re here with their wallets,” said Ford, who said these programs could also build the school’s reputation toward success as a magnet school. More than 100 children were served in the summer arts program this past summer, many of whom were not local.
Greenlaw also said Jennifer Schroth of the Brooklin school board mentioned during a Union 76 study committee meeting the possibility of an “exchange program” with GSA, where students who might be interested in a particular class or program could attend GSA for that class or program, or vice versa. West said there would be significant challenges to coordinating schedules for such an exchange.
Other budget concerns
Parent Mary Penfold urged the board to keep in mind that while the administrative and facilities costs for the CSD as a percentage of the budget are higher than the state average, the percentage of the budget spent on regular education is in-line. Penfold also asked the board if there is a specific budget number the board wants to hit—such as last year’s target of cutting more than $600,000 from the budget. The board responded that no number is currently in mind, though Olsen said, “there are more taxpayers than parents” in the community, and many are not interested in increasing school costs while enrollments decline.
Community member Zach Rosenfield asked whether the board is considering preschool options. Greenlaw said a subcommittee of Ready by 21 is working on that issue and believes the early childhood education needs on the Island can be met by private preschools and daycares already in operation. The Ready by 21 group is continuing to look for ways to support early childhood education, said Greenlaw, including early testing for development issues.
Major facilities projects were also discussed, including the deterioration of the high school parking lot, which has not had major work done since it was laid in 1976. Siding on the elementary school was also noted as a possible issue.