Tuesday January 22, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Bennington School District approved a redistricting proposal Thursday that could send nearly 100 children to a different school in the fall and create combination classrooms at two schools.

The first complete redrawing of attendance zones for Bennington’s three elementary schools since 2007 will affect 12 to 15 percent of the district’s children. The 21 children entering fifth grade next year, who will now be in a new school’s attendance zones, will be given the choice whether they wish to continue their final year in the same school or change. The 76 children who are in grades kindergarten through three this year will not be given a choice.

The need to redistrict is due to a growing population in Bennington Elementary’s zone. In recent years the school district has altered attendance lines for incoming kindergarten students to maintain equal class sizes among the three schools, but over time the practice has scattered and diluted attendance zones.

"A lot of movement"

"We’ve had a lot of movement of students over the last two or three years for a whole host of reasons, largely trying to manage class sizes," Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke told the board. "When we first took a look at it ... I reshuffled the deck and put the people back in the buildings they belonged in, (which) did a great deal to balance the buildings not only with class sizes but as best we could with free and reduced lunch and gender."

Then, using computer software that groups Bennington into nearly 70 neighborhood cells, officials reassigned some neighborhoods on the borders to alleviate the immediate overcrowding issues. The change will also save the district about $62,000 because Pembroke said if it did not redistrict, BSD would have to add an additional third grade teacher to the fiscal year 2014 budget that is already up 19 percent.

"If we don’t redistrict we need to hire another teacher at Molly Stark," Pembroke told the board.

In addition to assigning some neighborhoods to different schools the decision also creates additional combination grade classes to keep from hiring a teacher.

When first hearing the proposal the board raised serious concerns with combination classes, so much so the majority of the board was ready to support a motion that to add a teacher and not redraw district lines before principals advocated for the programmatic benefits of combination classes.

In the past classes of students from two grades have been driven by enrollment needs, but now principals said research suggests, when done right, combination classes have programmatic advantages.

Monument Elementary already has one combination classroom, and throughout every grade Monument provides tiered instruction in literacy in which students are grouped by ability instead of grade level. Principal Donna Cauley said she fully supports that model and the plan for Monument next year to run a combination first-second grade class and two combination classes of third and fourth graders.

"I’m very comfortable with the configuration," Cauley told the board.

The new district lines will also create a combination first and second grade class at Molly Stark, which Principal Donna MacKenzie King said was on the table for next year even before a conversation about redistricting began.

"If we do this one-two combination it would be geared toward specific children that might need additional supports in more of a tiered instruction," MacKenzie King said. "This does not feel like a hardship and if the board decides to vote the other way I would still like to reserve the right to possibly do the combination classroom."

The redistricting will not impact the 18 students who opted to attend Monument under the No Child Left Behind Act when Monument was the only school in BSD meeting Adequate Yearly Progress. Because Monument is no longer meeting AYP the question was raised in December whether those students would have to attend the school in the zone where they live, but state officials said those students have the right to finish elementary school there.

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