Friday October 5, 2012

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Bennington School District is discussing a reorganization that could do away with the current kindergarten through grade 5 model its three schools now operate under to create a kindergarten through second grade school and two schools for grades 3, 4, and 5.

The model would allow the school district of more than 800 students to pool grade level resources, increase collaboration between teachers in the same grade level and alleviate reoccurring class size and residential zone problems the schools run into every year, officials said Wednesday.

"Schools that have done this have found that their special education rate has dropped in the K-2 (schools) by about 50 percent," Donna MacKenzie King, principal of Molly Stark Elementary, said citing studies she has read.

Part of that decrease may be due to more concentrated resources and efforts within those schools. "The staff is able to focus on one specific developmental stage of a child’s education and growth," MacKenzie King said.

The K-2 and 3-5 model received the most attention of three organization structures the board discussed at its Wednesday meeting. Other options included keeping the current makeup or sending the district’s fifth grade students to Mount Anthony Union Middle School, which would alleviate a space problem that is projected to leave the district short on classrooms by the 2014-15 school year.


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The conversation began earlier this year when administration presented projected enrollment figures that show a shortage of classrooms during an enrollment bubble that will last from 2014 until 2020, peaking in the 2016-17 school year when schools are projected to be short five classrooms. The motivation to discuss changing the current model may have been further ignited when about a dozen families enrolled their children in kindergarten within a week of the start of school. All of those children had to be placed in Molly Stark due to space constraints in the other schools even though some of the families live on the opposite side of town.

Many of the problems created by late kindergarten registration are alleviated by having a single K-2 school in town.

"Everybody would know where their kindergartner is going to go, so there wouldn’t be this issue where they live in the Ben El district, but they’ve got to go to Molly Stark," board member Jackie Prue said.

The model is also expected to create two additional classrooms by maximizing enrollment in classes. Of course, even if the change were made there would still be a shortage of classrooms in the future and additional changes will need to be made.

Board members said they would not be willing to change the current K-5 structure if a K-2 model would have a negative impact on education, even if it did have a positive impact on space and finances.

More research needs to be done on the educational impact including site visits to Rutland and Springfield where K-2 schools are in place, but MacKenzie King said she sees potential for a positive educational impact coming from the change.

"Some of the educational impacts that it would have is if you have a K-2, and 3-5 building, your developmental practice is concentrated in that particular area. You could use staff that is either more familiar with your primary or your intermediate and spread out your resources that way so that a Title teacher (or) a special educator would be dealing with three grade levels instead of perhaps six," MacKenzie King said.

Additionally, there is an opportunity for greater collaboration between teachers when their counterparts in the same grade level are in the same building instead of spread among three.

"I always found as a teacher, most of what improved my teaching is collaborating with my colleagues .... so I think that’s a really important piece of having same grade levels in one building," MacKenzie King said. "If our concentration was in one area, I truly believe we would do a better job."

"I am absolutely an advocate for a K-2 and three, four, five buildings."

Other supporting arguments for a K-2 and 3-5 model is leveling the socioeconomic disparity among BSD’s schools. More than 70 percent of students at Molly Stark and Bennington Elementary qualify for free or reduced lunch rates, while 40 percent do at Monument Elementary.

The model would also help nullify the effect of transience within the school district. Last school year, 43 students moved from one BSD school to another, but if all grades K-2 were in one school there would be no disruption at the school when a family moves within the town.

When discussing potential negative aspects of the K-2 and 3-5 model the positive aspects of the current system were also highlighted. The main argument for K-5 model was continuity. Now, parents and students both know they will be dealing with the same group of school and staff for six years when enrolling in kindergarten, and educators have more time to become familiar with a students’ learning habits and form relationships with students.

"There’s an opportunity of students, parents, and staff to build longevity of relationships," said James Law, principal of Bennington Elementary.

The current model also allows older students to interact with become mentors for the younger students. The current model makes for less transitions between schools and less schools that families may have children in at the same time.

At the start of the meeting the K-2 and 3-5 model was brought up as a long-term change, although some discussions were whether it could be put in place next school year if it received the support of the full board and community.

There were also discussions of short-term fixes to increase class space by 2014, including the purchase of portable classrooms. The option of consolidating schools and building a new one was also discussed briefly. Doing so may qualify for 50 percent reimbursement from the state, although Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke said it would likely be years, maybe decades, before the district was reimbursed.

The school board expects to host a community forum to get input and educate the public on a possible change later this month or in November.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi