Public argues against changes to school configuration (5/28/09)

May 28, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

That sentiment was uttered several times last Wednesday evening by teachers and parents opposed to major configuration changes within the school district.

During the School Board’s final public hearing before it makes a decision on a future school configuration, parents and teachers made sure the board heard their views loud and clear.

About 80 members of the public turned out at the board meeting in the Williston Central School auditorium to hear the Williston Conceptual Frameworks Committee’s final configuration recommendation for the school year. Following the recommendation presentation, the public weighed in, with the vast majority speaking out against any changes.

The School Board already said in a meeting last month that configuration changes would occur and the present system would not be considered. Currently, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and most first through fourth grade classrooms are at Allen Brook School. Two lower houses — which span grades one through four — and all fifth through eighth grade classrooms are at Williston Central.

The board defended its decision to make building configuration changes, stating it was always the district’s intention to house all elementary school students at Allen Brook.

“It allows the schools to function more independently and, we feel, more efficiently,” board member Holly Rouelle said. “We’ve heard from parents it can be really socially isolating for lower house students at Williston Central.”

The Frameworks Committee recommended two different configuration options, each containing various nuances of grade groupings. One option, called Option C, would place grades one through four at Allen Brook, while pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and grades five through eight would be housed in Williston Central. There were also several designs for multi-age grade grouping and looping.

The committee already presented this configuration option in a board meeting last month. It was also at that April meeting that the board asked the committee to reexamine an earlier option, Option B, that would place kindergarten through third grade at Allen Brook and grades four through eight at Williston Central. Board member Laura Gigliotti, who is also a member of the Frameworks Committee, spearheaded the idea.

The committee briefly considered this design during its last two meetings and developed several multi-age grade grouping and looping configurations. Some configurations kept the current four-year multi-age system, while offering other houses with two-year and sometimes one-year groupings within the school system.

Parents and teachers react

While the board asked attendees to comment only on the two configuration options presented, most offered their opinion on why Williston Central should remain a grade one through eight school. Parents and teachers from Lighthouse and Pinnacle House, Williston Central School houses with students in grades one through four, made up the vast majority of those that spoke Wednesday night.

Teachers said the current model at Williston Central is good for all ages. The younger students create a calming effect with older students, and older students act as positive role models for the younger children.

Lighthouse teacher Cara Medved said changes were unnecessary because of all the positives with the current configuration.

“I don’t think a school such as ours needs an overhaul,” Medved said.

Other teachers and parents said if the board does change the building configuration, then they support the option of putting all first through fourth grades at Allen Brook. That way, the current four-year multi-age system could remain intact.

District Math Coordinator Rick McCraw, a former upper house teacher, said it takes some students four years in the same house to realize their potential. The current structure is needed to build strong relationships between students and teachers, he added.

“Go for as much multi-age for as long a period of time as you can manage,” McGraw told the board.

Not all parents spoke out against the configuration options. Cindy O’Farrell, also a member of the Frameworks Committee, said a lot of parents did not like the current four-year house system and were unable to speak at the meeting due to prior commitments. Parent Nikki Layman agreed.

“I don’t think this was very representative of what everyone thinks,” Layman said after the meeting. “I know there are a lot of people dissatisfied (with the current system).”

Parent Deb Norton told the board it might be a good time to return to the beginning of the process with another survey to gauge the current public opinion. The idea garnered a round of applause from those gathered in the auditorium.

“I would love to fill out another survey, because I’m more educated now,” Norton said. “I’m better prepared (to respond).”

The board is expected to make its decision on a future school configuration at a meeting from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, May 28 at Williston Central School. Configuration changes will not take effect until the 2010-2011 school year.