BENNINGTON -- Late kindergarten enrollments had Bennington School District scrambling during the first week of school, resulting in the need for an additional bus route and larger class sizes than preferred.
Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Catherine McClure told the school board Thursday that 12 children were registered for kindergarten in Bennington within a week of the start of classes. At the time of the late registrations kindergarten capacity had already been filled at both Monument Elementary and Bennington Elementary, leaving all of the students to attend Molly Stark Elementary.
While Molly Stark had space for more students, sending all of the children there posed significant transportation problems as many of the children within boundary zones of the other two schools.
For the first week of school the district had to pick up and drop off some students with alternative transportation. Since the first day of school Tuesday some bus routes have also been slightly adjusted, although there are still "six or seven" students who do not live in an area a Molly Stark school bus can pick them up, said Richard Pembroke, the chief financial officer, who oversees transportation.
Pembroke presented three potential solutions administration came up with -- transferring an entire class of students and the teacher from Molly Stark to Bennington Elementary, allowing more students to attend Bennington Elementary, which would increase class sizes that are already larger than the district would like, or contracting another bus route.
The unanimous decision of administrators and the school board was for an additional bus. Because BSD shares buses with Mount Anthony Union School District, the cost of an additional route is expected to be approximately $25,000, which is less than it would be to contract a bus independently, Pembroke told the board.
BSD has made it a priority in recent years to keep kindergarten class sizes capped at 18 students. Ideally the district wants to keep classes between 15 to 17 students. Those class sizes have not been maintainable this year as every elementary school has at least one class with 19 students and Bennington Elementary has one class with 20 students.
In a few cases, this year's enrollment issues forced the district to split up siblings between schools, which the distrust has always been able to avoid doing in the past.
McClure said all of the parents of children who have been asked to attend a district outside their residential zone have been understanding of the problems, although administration acknowledged parents are often attached to the school in the neighborhood they reside.
Kindergarten enrollment issues in Bennington, which is the only elementary district in SVSU with multiple schools, has been an annual problem, largely because of late enrollments. This year, principals and supervisory union administrators said was the most difficult to plan. In addition to late registrations, the problem is magnified because all three schools in the district are different sizes and Monument only has space for one kindergarten class so there is less flexibility.
In addition to accepting new students at the last minute, planning is also made difficult because 25 to 30 students identified early in the process generally move or attend private school. This year there were 32 kindergarten age children who were identified and did not end up attending BSD schools, McClure said.
"We don't really know what the solution is, but we know that we cannot keep doing this. It keeps happening year after year after year ... and it makes for an incredibly stressful start to the school year," said Donna MacKenzie King, principal of Molly Stark. "We never are absolutely sure of what our kindergarten class numbers are going to be until school starts and with 12 enrolling the week before school starts its almost impossible to plan. It's a complex, complicated system and we keep saying amongst ourselves we can't keep doing this. Not only is it stressful for administrators, it's stressful for families."
Administration are going to keep working to find a long term solution, which cannot come quick enough as Pembroke told the board based on enrollment projections the same problems will continue to not only persist but worsen in years to come.
"I think it's time that you recognize the 4,000 pound gorilla in the room -- you have a facility problem," Pembroke said. "Next year's going to be 10 times worse. It's not going to get better and the longer we stick our head in the sand it's going to get worse and worse."
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