MANCHESTER — Should the Taconic & Green Regional School District consider building a middle school, either as a building renovation or new construction?
A committee of the district's school board has determined that there's merit to the proposal, and the district will pursue a consultant study that would determine potential costs and next steps, Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Randi Lowe told the board Tuesday night.
It will also include a robust community engagement process, Lowe said. In addition to stakeholder presentations and community forums, the district will seek input from families, voters, educators and students, and communicate why educational concerns are driving interest in the proposal, Lowe said.
A dedicated middle school, Lowe said, would be able to offer "21st-century middle school programming" for students, including technology, foreign languages, art and music, and serve as a hub for the wider Taconic & Green community. She said if the proposal moves forward, "we want to look at creating a state-of-the-art middle school program."
That's not the case at present, she said. For example, Sunderland and Currier do not have foreign language programs, and students from those schools arriving at Dorset and Manchester Elementary-Middle School find themselves behind on learning a new language. "That doesn't feel great," she said.
"I have huge concerns about variability of our middle school programs," Lowe said. Given the number of teachers asked to take on different subjects year to year and the small numbers of middle school students at the current K-8 schools, "that becomes an unstable learning and teaching platform."
Furthermore, "middle school is important developmentally," she said. "We have small cohorts of students — and sometimes kids feel very alone."
But board member David Chandler of Dorset said those smaller class sizes can be a positive, too.
"The strength of a small school is its community focus," he said, citing the student mentoring program at Mettawee Community School as an example. "A lot of schools have lost that. I would like to get an analysis of how to incorporate community focus in a regional middle school and reinforce that at our elementary schools."
The concept of a regional middle school serving students in the Burr and Burton Academy sending towns has been raised before. But Lowe raised a number of new concerns — most notably, about the variability of programming between the three schools serving grades 6 through 8, the lack of enrichment and programming at those schools, and the number of families who opt out for area independent schools — as driving renewed interest in the idea.
According to data presented by Lowe, last year, 85 students opted out for independent schools including Long Trail School and Maple Street School, and most did so in fifth or sixth grade. That leads to a smaller average daily student number and has a negative impact on the budget, she said.
At present, middle-school-age students from the five T&G schools have intra-district choice between MEMS, The Dorset School and Flood Brook School, which are all K through 8. Currier Memorial School in Danby serves grades K through 5, while Sunderland Elementary School educates kids grades K through 6.
No decisions have been made, and the board and Lowe committed to an engagement process with presentations, forums and input from the school communities. Lowe said she supports moving forward with the work and considers it in the best interest of the district's students.
The possible configurations — none have been chosen at this point — include new construction on the MEMS site, and renovating the current MEMS building as a middle school with its K through 5 students attending other schools. Continuing to operate five schools or consolidating are both on the table as well, according to the report.
Board member Lindsay Ralph of Danby asked if Mettawee Community School families are being consulted about the proposal. Lowe said that school community has shown interest. While Mettawee is not part of the Taconic & Green district, and has no plans to join, its students could potentially attend a Taconic & Green regional middle school, Lowe said.
Lowe said at present, she's expecting a regional middle school would require six additional full-time employees. Asked by board member Deb Lyneis of Weston if those would be classroom teachers, Lowe said they'd likely be specialists for the library, technology, arts, health and foreign language.
The perception of need for a middle school is greatest among current middle school parents and high school students who have graduated the program, Lowe said, while elementary parents are more satisfied and less concerned. Teachers and staff are largely in favor, as are administrators at Burr and Burton Academy, she added.
The plan is for the community engagement effort to take place during the current school year, and hire a consultant with money from the fiscal 2023 and 2024 budgets. Lowe is in the process of reviewing consultants for the role.