Chatham studies how others managed school consolidation

CHATHAM–The Board of Education held another town-hall style meeting last week, continuing the discussion of the district’s facilities study. Schools Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo gave a presentation in the High School auditorium about the potential grades 7-12 program and possible options for consolidation, should the board decide to close the Middle School building.

Due to declining enrollment and financial pressures, the district conducted the facilities study to explore the possibility of consolidating students into two buildings instead of the current three separate schools. The study, completed last year, found that the move would be feasible and estimated that the district would save $681,000 annually. The consolidation would mean closing the building on Woodbridge Avenue, moving the 6th grade to the Elementary School and grades 7 and 8 to the High School. Community members and parents have expressed concern over the idea of combining 7th and 8th graders with the older high school students.

To review how other schools have fared with programs like the one under consideration in Chatham, the district sent staff in mid-February to five other school districts of roughly similar size that have a 7-12 program under one roof. The districts visited were Watervliet, Greenville, Hoosick Valley, New Lebanon, and Taconic Hills. According to Ms. Nuciforo, each district had one of three different configurations for their consolidated program, which were:

A unified 7-12 program

A split program within a 7-12 building

Two schools within the same physical space.

“No one of these is better or worse than any of the others,” said Ms. Nuciforo. “They each have their advantages and disadvantages.”

The staff members who traveled to each district focused on a variety of areas, including schedules, safety and physical space. Their findings were presented by Ms. Nuciforo at the February 26 meeting.

The superintendent said that space was not a major issue. Most teachers had their own rooms, and there was some sharing of areas such as cafeterias, gymnasiums and libraries. Some districts had more sharing than others. But Ms. Nuciforo said that the separation of grade levels was done through scheduling. She said the Chatham staff also learned that discipline was administered differently depending on age and grade level, and every district studied had some separation between grades 7-8 and 9-12 as far as disciplinary action. Safety and bullying were not concerns in any of the districts, which Ms. Nuciforo attributed to “supervision, clear expectations, and administrative support.”

The problems cited in the study included a lack of flexibility to accommodate 7th and 8th grade Regents testing. Lunch periods tended to be shorter due to scheduling issues, and some younger students picked up inappropriate language from the older students. Also, due to staffing, teachers may have to teach classes at both high school and middle school levels.

Ms. Nuciforo added that the two main concerns the districts had were finances and the Annual Professional Performance Review, neither of which stems from having a 7-12 program.

An audience member asked how many programs were cut when the other districts consolidated. Ms. Nuciforo responded by saying that districts consolidate due to financial constraints to avoid program cuts. “We’re trying to preserve programs, not cut them,” she said. “That’s the whole point here.”

Another audience member was concerned about preserving the ability to provide special help to students in small group settings when needed. Ms. Nuciforo said that these concerns are not being overlooked, but added that “scheduling is an art.”

“The idea is not to pick up the Middle School program as it exists and drop it into the High School,” she said.

When asked whether consolidation would affect electives, she said that the problem with electives is “not a lack of space or staff, but a lack of students.” She said the district is in a 40-year downward trend in enrollment.

When asked about how the move would affect staff, Ms. Nuciforo said that there would be a staff reduction.

High School Principal John Thorsen said he believes the move will be a challenge.

“How do we take the best from each program and make them work under one roof?” he said. “That’s going to take time.”

There will be another town hall-style meeting March 28 at 6:30 p.m. in the High School auditorium to discuss the capital construction needs suggested in the facilities study. The board is scheduled to make their decision regarding the Middle School building June 25.

 

 

 

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