Tuesday February 26, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Mount Anthony Union Education Committee toured the middle school Monday, to see what space it could offer Bennington fifth graders as an alternative to the elementary district bonding for an addition.

By unanimous consent, the full MAU school board agreed it is receptive to further exploring the possibility if Bennington School District -- the governing board for the town's children in grades pre-kindergarten through five -- asks MAU to do so.

Mount Anthony Union Middle School Principal Timothy Payne said space is available if the community supported sending its fifth grade to the middle school; however, he said it may take some creative planning and a number of questions would have to be addressed first.

Among a list of challenges -- fifth grade teachers would have to be laid off by BSD and then a hiring process would have to take place at MAUMS; the MAU district would require a charter change; there is not space for a fifth grade wing, so classes would have to be blended with all grades, there would be a need for additional teachers for specials; and staff and space constraints exist for areas like the gym and cafeteria.

None of the challenges, according to Payne, are too big to prevent bringing Bennington's fifth grade to the middle school as early as the 2014-15 school year, when the elementary schools are projected to be short three classrooms.


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The middle school, which was opened in 2004 and built to accommodate from 900 to 950 students, has about 575 students in grades six through eight this year. Adding Bennington's fifth graders would bring enrollment up around 700.

While the school is significantly under the capacity it was designed to hold, Payne said there are just two or three classrooms that are not assigned for educational purposes this school year. There are, however, at least eight rooms intended to hold traditional classes that are being used for a different purpose, such as special education, instructional support, or foreign language, he said.

Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller said it is also important to remember that the middle school has added programming from when the building was opened, so the enrollment capacity may no longer be as high as when it opened.

"When the building was designed, we didn't have language five days a week gym was not a requirement to pass to move to the high school, we didn't have some of the alternative programs we now have," she said.

In the sixth grade wing, Payne identified two classrooms that could be used for fifth grade students, which would accommodate from 40 to 50 pupils. When Bennington residents voted to send sixth grade students to the middle school, the will was to have those students in their own wing. Payne said he did not see how it would be feasible to keep both sixth and fifth grade students in isolated wings.

Payne was on the fence when asked about his personal belief of whether fifth grade students would benefit from attending the middle school. While he believes the middle school team philosophy, the additional programs and benefits of the facility would be to their advantage, he also questioned putting children of such different ages together in a building.

"I look at the age span six through eight and there's so much change going on. My concern would be, you've got fifth graders in the building who are just really, really young it's just a bigger age span as far as what's changing and what's going on in the building. My experience was maybe fifth grade is better served in elementary," said Payne, who has a son in sixth grade. "However, saying that, if it was the decision of the community that fifth grade is coming to the middle school I think we would be able to find the solution for that and what that would look like."

Payne, along with others on the board, said his preference would be to first focus on giving sixth graders the same opportunities as the other students by getting them on the same schedule, curriculum and allowing them to take classes such as foreign language or applied technology.

Earlier this month, the BSD board spoke in favor of asking residents in June to approve a bond to pay for an addition to Bennington Elementary. The board has paid Centerline Architects $37,000 to create schematic designs and come up with preliminary cost estimates for the addition -- which at this point has resulted in two proposals the board is looking at. The proposals are estimated to cost $4.6 million and $5.2 million.

The addition has been touted by the board as the best option to deal with a classroom shortage projected to begin in fiscal year 2015 and continue through 2020.

Ken Swierad, chairman of BSD and also a member of MAU, said Monday that BSD is still considering all of its options. "The options for our fifth grade, one of them is here (the middle school), one is to put the addition on the school, one is tuition the kids out, one is to rent space, and one is to increase class sizes," Swierad said, adding that all options will be on the table at the next BSD meeting Thursday.

At the last BSD meeting, numerous board members said all the options -- including sending the fifth grades to MAUMS -- have been vetted and the addition makes the most sense. The reason given at that meeting for not sending the fifth grade to the middle school was that the MAU board was not interested in accepting them -- a claim Oller said prompted the discussion at the MAU level Monday.

"It was basically said that Mount Anthony didn't want the fifth grade students and in fact we actually hadn't explored the possibility, because we had never really been asked to seriously consider it," Oller said Monday.

Following an advisory vote last March that indicated residents in Pownal, Shaftsbury, North Bennington and Woodford had no desire to send their sixth grade students to the middle school Oller said the board discussed that it would look, at a future date, at other ways space at the middle school could be utilized. Among the options, she said, was always the possibility of including Bennington's fifth grade.

Whether the MAU board will spend more time gathering information to answer the many questions around the fifth grade will depend on BSD.

"We won't be pursuing it if we aren't going to be asked to look at logistics. We just wanted to know if it was feasible and what Mount Anthony felt," she said.

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