|What happens when a school closes?|
|What happens when a school closes?|
|Written by Dennis HInes/Stateline News|
|Thursday, 03 November 2011 13:48|
Although still used for a literacy program, elementary classes are no longer taught at Wright Elementary School in Beloit. Terry Mayer/staff photo.
BELOIT — Closing a neighborhood school is one of the most difficult decisions a community can make. But as budgets dwindle, more area districts are faced with the option.
After a lengthy review process, Janesville decided to keep all 12 of its elementary schools open next year. The Parkview School District, however, is considering closing Footville and Newark elementary schools after this school year.
The Beloit School Board, however, couldn’t wait. They bit the bullet last year and voted to move elementary classes out of two schools to help the district overcome a projected $11 million deficit.
But other than the obvious budget impact, what are the effects on students, staff and parents?
After two months into the new school year after closing Wright and Royce elementary schools, some might be surprised to find that it’s not been all bad.
“After the first month (of the school year), I said to the staff, ‘The shoe has got to drop sometime. It can’t be this good,’ but it has...,” said Burdge Elementary School Principal Debbie Prosser. “There was a lot of anticipation in the spring, but there was a lot of pre-planning. I give the school district credit. There’s been a lot of planning for this.”
“There’s more collaboration,” said Victoria Smith, principal of Hackett Elementary School. “The teachers can talk to each other and exchange ideas, so I think that’s helped.”
Laurie Larson, kindergarten teacher at Hackett, said teachers meet on a regular basis to share ideas and to talk about upcoming lesson plans.
“We have time to bounce ideas off of each other and talk about lesson plans,” Larson said. “All the teachers get together and talk about assignments and what worked and what didn’t work.”
Cindy Sperger, special education resource teacher at Burdge Elementary School, said the move has given her the opportunity to learn from other teachers who she had not worked with in the past.
“I think it’s gone a lot smoother, because it’s allowed teachers to concentrate on their expertise and to collaborate,” Sperger said. “It’s given us the opportunity to learn from peers from different buildings.”
As part of the school closings, Todd, Robinson, Merrill, Converse, Gaston and Hackett elementary schools were designated as kindergarten through third-grade elementary schools, and McLenegan, Morgan, Cunningham and Burdge elementary schools were designated as fourth- through fifth-grade schools, following the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education model.
“That’s an educationally sound thing to do,” said Superintendent Steve McNeal. “Kindergarten through third grade is what we call the primary grades, and there’s research that shows that keeping kids together in the primary grades is really important. Plus, we can put in more resources that are more age appropriate at the primary level, so that’s what we’ve been able to do.
“Obviously, parents want what’s best for their kids, and we respect that,” McNeal said. “Some aren’t as happy as others, then there’s those who are elated about it and really glad about it. Honestly, we’ve had very few complaints.”
With the closing of Royce and Wright schools, several students and teachers had to be transferred to other schools.
Fifth-grade teacher Joe Vrydaghs was transferred from Converse Elementary School to Burdge and said he and several of his students were apprehensive about the move at first.
“I think we were all in the same boat when we got here in the sense of the unknown. I didn’t really know what to expect from my co-workers and students that I’ve never seen before. Converse was so comfortable,” Vrydaghs said. “From the parents, I’ve heard the same thing, ‘Is my kid going to make new friends?’ or ‘Is it going to be overwhelming?’ I think they really bought into the idea that it’s going to give (their children) more opportunities to make friends, more kids to meet than what they would have otherwise.”
Sharon Straub, fifth-grade teacher who was transferred from Royce to Burdge, said she and other teachers spent most of the summer preparing for the move. She said they received some assistance from students and parents.
“The move was challenging with the summer, packing up things and making sure things were labeled,” Straub said. “That part was really challenging, but once we got all the boxes unpacked and met our co-workers and met our students, it’s just been joyful.”
Smith said Hackett Elementary School hosted several open houses before the start of the school year to help incoming students and staff feel welcome.
“Some of the teachers joked that it gave them a chance to clean out their stuff,” Smith said. “The students seemed a little apprehensive at first, but I think they have gotten used to the change.”
Larson said she transferred from Royce to Hackett, and the staff members have made her feel welcome.
“They’ve made everyone feel welcome. There was an open house the day before school, and they had a red carpet rolled out for us,” Larson said. “There’s been a lot of support for new teachers at Hackett.”
Former Beloit School Board Member Jessie Everson’s daughter, Emily Davis, transferred from Royce to Hackett. Everson said, so far, she has been in favor of the change.
“I’m thrilled about it,” Everson said. “I was on the school board during the time the decision was made, and it was a tough decision to make. I love Hackett. It’s been a great year, so far.”
Several teachers said their class sizes have decreased this school year compared to previous years. Larson said her class size has decreased from about 25 students to 18 students. She said the change has allowed her to become more familiar with her students as well as their parents.
“People will say that’s only seven less students, but that’s seven less report cards I have to do. That’s seven less parent-teacher conferences I have to have,” Larson said. “I feel like I get to know the families better.”
Vrydaghs said he thought class sizes would increase, but he is pleased that the opposite has been true.
“When I first heard about the closings, I just questioned it,” Vrydaghs said. “I said, ‘I’ve got 28 to 29 kids. We’re closing two schools. I’m going to have 38 or 39. The math doesn’t make sense.’ But the classrooms were spread even. You have some (classrooms) with 18 students, and I probably topped it out at (Burdge) school with 29.”
Several teachers said the move also has allowed students to interact with more children their age.
Straub said she feels the move will help the students when they attend middle school.
“I think, from the students’ perspective, they’re meeting another set of kids from two schools to help them make friends for middle school,” Straub said. “They wouldn’t of known the Converse students. They wouldn’t of known the students from Burdge, now they’re all blended together. So they’re already meeting half of their sixth-grade class.”
Johanna O’Connell, special education resource teacher at Burdge, said she has noticed more friendships being formed among students and staff.
“I was the biggest skeptic last year. I said, ‘Don’t do this, you’re going to ruin our Burdge family,’ and it’s grown leaps and bounds,” O’Connell said. “I think our students are appreciative of having kids their own age.”
Royce and Wright elementary schools are still being used by the school district. Royce is being used as an early childhood education center as well as space for the Kiddie Ranch daycare center.
Wright is being used as a site for the district’s Even Start literacy program. McNeal said more programs may be offered at Wright in the future.
“We are looking at future expansion of programs at Wright,” McNeal said. “It’s a possibility that we might be moving some of our existing programs to Wright and getting out of some renting situations.”
McNeal said, so far, closing the two schools has saved the district about $2 million.
“When the governor came through with his new school funding plan and the cuts he imposed on our schools, it became a very dire situation,” McNeal said. “So the Beloit School District is in great shape compared to other school districts, because the board and our administration had the foresight of saying, ‘We got to do something to continue to look outside the box and create awareness to save money,’ because we knew we were already going to be in some financial trouble.”