Guest Column (5/7/09)

Take time with school recommendations

May 7, 2009

By Tanya Marshall

I have three children in Lighthouse at Williston Central School (two children in first grade and one in second grade).

Last month they were talking, with excitement, about moving up a grade in the fall. My first graders noted that their teacher, Becky Martell, said she would be changing the room a bit for the big second graders that they will be when they return to school in August.

My second grader expressed that he really likes Cara Medved and cannot wait for her to be his teacher. He said he’ll miss Kate McLaughlin, but then said that he will see her “all the time” because she’s right next door. To end the discussion, my first graders exclaimed they will get to be in Dave Bouchard’s class when they go into third grade.

A few years ago, when I first learned about the house system, I was not pleased; it was a concept with which I was unfamiliar. My oldest was in the pre-kindergarten program at Allen Brook School as a peer and I liked Allen Brook. As a result, I cringed when I learned that he was placed in Williston Central School for kindergarten. Over the years I had heard, through parents, that Williston Central School was the less desirable of placements due to the age of the building, proximity to the older students and fewer lower house students. Therefore I thought that my children would be at a disadvantage. When I saw that Lighthouse was all in one corridor and learned that children would be there for four years, I will admit that I was horrified. But, I accepted his placement.

By the end of my son’s first month of kindergarten, I knew that the house concept, Williston Central School and Lighthouse, in particular, are perfect for our family. This is especially true as I have one child who has since been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He truly benefits from the house system (routine/knows the teachers), the location of Lighthouse (small set of students/not overwhelming) and exposure to older students (social development through exposure to older children in Lighthouse and the upper houses as well).

In addition, my children, through their after-school program, recreation department offerings and other programs, know and interact with many of their Allen Brook peers. They do not lack friends by any means within Williston Central or the school district.

The house system in Williston, particularly the four-year system, has been fully embraced by my children, my husband and I. We know the teachers and what to expect. Our children have the same field trips, projects and activities, which allow us greater involvement (instead of dividing our time). They love team building within their house and school spirit weeks — they are filled with great pride in what they do and being part of our larger system, whether it be Lighthouse or Williston Central School. Needless to say, our family is thrilled with our house, the teachers and Williston Central School.

When I was a child, I remember crying every year when the teacher placements for the following fall were received. It was very stressful and the uncertainty stayed with me throughout the summer and the beginning of the school year. I commend the board, Williston Central School and the Williston School District for the environment that has been created for our children. I could not have asked for anything more. My children do not experience any anxiety with transitioning at this point and even talk about when they get to move to the upper houses.

Relative to the recommendation to move Pinnacle and Lighthouse to Allen Brook, change is not an issue for me if it is done for the right reasons. In the long run, I think my children will do fine should they need to transfer to Allen Brook in the 2010-2011 school year. (I will not pretend to know if Lighthouse will be the same if we need to transfer.)

Personally, I have not witnessed configuration, inequity and communication issues or failures that the Frameworks Committee has sought to improve. However, I have been following the committee and its reports. If the decision is made to remove Lighthouse and Pinnacle from Williston Central School, I hope it is because there is sound evidence that (1) there truly are inequality and communication issues within the lower houses; (2) the current configuration is a cause of inequity within the system and communication issues; and (3) that this change will result in equality and improved communication.

On Thursday, April 2, after my children excitedly discussed their upcoming years in Lighthouse, I read the Williston Observer story about the Frameworks Committee’s building recommendation (“Frameworks recommends grades 1-4 at Allen Brook School”). When I told my children there was a possibility that Lighthouse would need to move to Allen Brook in two years they burst into tears. To be quite honest, I was surprised by their emotions. However, I should not have been surprised. Everything the school district has tried to accomplish relative to continuity, school spirit and “family” within a house and school has worked.

As a parent, I am not convinced that the recommendation to move Lighthouse and Pinnacle to Allen Brook will resolve any perception of inequity or communication issues that some parents have about the house system. I am convinced, however, that there is a risk of losing much of the district’s accomplishments with its house system by moving too quickly and not taking an honest assessment of what is truly working and what really is not. I cannot help but believe that Lighthouse’s success with my family and so many other families has to do with a number of factors, including it’s location in Williston Central School. This is likely true for parents who are equally happy with Pinnacle within Williston Central and the remaining lower houses within Allen Brook.

I strongly encourage the board to spend more time and effort trying to understand why some parents feel there is inequality or communication issues within the lower house system and determine how to best address those concerns before deciding to move two lower houses out of Williston Central School. At this point, I do not believe the Frameworks Committee has successfully shown how consolidating grades one through four within Allen Brook will be an improvement to our school system.

Tanya Marshall is a Williston resident and parent. She originally sent this letter to the Williston School Board prior to its April 6 meeting. The version of the letter that appears here was edited slightly for print purposes.