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Redistricting hot topic at School Committee

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Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:00 am

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STONEHAM, MA  - The School Committee conducted the first of many discussions last week regarding redistricting in Stoneham.

"This is the first meeting to talk about redistricting options. It is primarily an introduction," School Committee Chairman Dave Maurer said, adding that more public meetings would follow with more in-depth discussions, and ample notification would be made to the public.

The discussion of redistricting is borne out of the town's decision to build a new Middle School. The new school will be housed in the current Central Elementary School building which will have a large addition built on. The resulting new school will house grades 5-8. That leaves three elementary buildings to service grades Pre-K through 4 and the best way to do that is currently being evaluated.

School Superintendent Dr. Les Olson represented the redistricting committee at this initial meeting last Thursday and presented the committee's findings to date.

"We're still very much in the fact-finding phase...We are nowhere near being ready to bringing a recommendating to you yet."

Olson also advised that the presentation at the current stage focuses on which type of educational model to adopt for Pre-K through grade 4.  Discussion of redrawing physical district lines cannot be made until after a model is adopted.

In addition to determining an educational model for the remaining three elementary schools, Colonial Park, South and Robin Hood, the School Committee has the opportunity to address class size disparities, balance program placement, and expand and improve programs at the elementary level.

Consideration of space and schedules is based upon students in grades 1-4, as well as full day Kindergarten, having each elective - art, music, physical education, library, and instructional technology - one time per week.  Half day Kindergarten will have an abbreviated schedule of electives. The issue of going to one full time Kindergarten program, a goal the School Committee has had for some time, is a separate issue, but one that will continue to be evaluated.

In summary, there are three educational model options presented to the School Committee last week.

The first is the "Three School Model" which locates Pre-K through grade 4 at Colonial Park, K-4 at South, and K-4 at Robin Hood. This is the most similar configuration to the neighborhood model that exists now. Some of the pros to this model include that it requires the least amount of busing, involves the fewest transitions for students, offers the best vertical alignment of curriculum (from one grade to another), allows older students and younger students to work together, and offers the longest period of time for students to spend in one building, thereby providing for development of a strong school culture. 

Cons to this model are reflective of some of what does not work optimally in the current set-up, including it does not facilitate a balanced distribution of students and special programs, it may not resolve class size inequities, and it does not resolve difficulties in grade level teacher collaboration since any one grade (with the exception of Pre-K) will continue to be dispersed throughout town. In addition, the three schools will not be equal in that Colonial Park has fewer classrooms than the other two.

The second model is the "Early Childhool Model," which would place Pre-K and Kindergarten at Colonial Park, and grades 1-4 at South and Robin Hood Schools. The benefits here are a more efficient use of staff, more room for expansion available for Pre-K, fewer grade level coordination issues, ability to better balance class sizes, more grade/teacher collaboration possible than in first model, and one facility can focus solely on early childhood education.

Some things about this model that are not seen as clear benefits include increased difficulty in academic and social transition to grade 1, lack of older role models for youngest students, more busing likely needed, lack of vertical alignment of curriculum for Pre-K and Kindergarten.  There would be no MCAS testing at the Colonial Park School in this model, since the test does not apply to Pre-K and Kindergarten students. This can be seen as both a pro and a con.

The third option is called the "Tieired Model," and calls for Pre-K and Kindergarten at Colonial Park School, grades 1 and 2 at one elementary school (either South or Robin Hood) and grades 3 and 4 at the other. This model provides the most efficient use of staff, facilitates sharing of resources among grade levels, allows for horizontal curriculum alignment, ensures equitable class sizes, reduces comparisons between neighborhood schools, and impacts the entire town equally.

Cons to this model include too many transitions for students (students would likely move to a different building several times before hitting middle school) and the least amount of years at one school to develop a strong school culture for students and families.  In addition, this model is the least beneficial compared to the other two with regard to busing, likelihood of siblings in different schools, limited older role models for all students, least collaboration between grades, and biggest change for parents.

"I have no idea how we address school arrival and dismissal times," for families travelling to more than one school in this model, Olson said.

According to Olson, initial conclusions suggest that pros of the tiered model "are more logistical than educational."

"And right now, we're focused on education....and the tiered model may have the strongest negative factors."

"We know these aren't the only options out there," Olson said, but from the committee's investigation, these represent the most sensible options for Stoneham.

The three options are expected to be listed on the school website this week,  Parents are encouraged to review the options and direct any questions to the School Committee or Superintendent by attending upcoming School Committee meetings. The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for December 13.  Parents can also call a School Committee member or the Superintendent with any questions or concerns. A final decision on the model is likely to take place at the end of January after 2-3 more meetings to discuss the issue more in depth.

The schedule for this redistricting project looks like this:  Fall of 2012 - evaluation of program locations, Spring 2013 - evaluation of elementary district boundaries and initial decision of education model, Fall 2013 - confirmation of decisions based upon enrollment numbers, and Fall 2014 - implementation of new educational model at three elementary schools and of redrawn district lines.

Olson and members of the School committee expressed gratitude for the hard work of redistricting committee which includes Sharon Bird, Deb DiMarco, Sarah Hardy, Patty Messina, Alice Reilly, Ann Nelson, Suzanne Thistle, Barbara Surabian, Maureen Burke, Rosa Flynn, Rita Harris, Linda Ullman, and Nancy Sotis.

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