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As Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, said at the Wednesday, October 26, Community Forum, held at Newtown High School, the district is roughly 30 months into a study of facilities and enrollment. The Board of Education is expected to make a decision next month.
Almost all of the community speakers expressed concerns or opposition to a proposed option of closing Newtown Middle School and reconfiguring grade levels in the district if the Board of Education decides to close a school due to further projected declining enrollment.
Dr Erardi said the Community Forum marked “a very important evening” for the Board of Education, which was fully represented for the night. The board will also meet with school administrators and town officials before it makes its final decision, according to Dr Erardi.
“It’s really at heavy duty intake at this time,” said Dr Erardi, who spoke before community members shared input on the night’s topic.
A study was presented for the school board at its Tuesday, October 19, meeting by members of a Future Forecast Committee, which has worked for months to research school use and projected declining enrollment following a February charge by the school board.
The committee had previously presented nine options for closing either NMS or an elementary school to the board, in July. The report also offered a look at not closing any school in the district and the potential use for space. When the school board later decided not to close an elementary school, the reported options were whittled down.
“Through the process of elimination, the last standing opportunity is not an endorsement,” said Dr Erardi, “it is simply the best information that we believe fits the school district logistically as we move forward with enrollment projections.”
“Option I,” as reported in the presentation for the board at the October 19 meeting, would reconfigure the district to have kindergarten through fourth grade in the elementary schools, fifth through seventh grade at Reed Intermediate School, and eighth to twelfth grade at NHS.
Enrollment projections shared in a 2014 Milone & MacBroom enrollment study “remain accurate in the high enrollment lane,” said Dr Erardi.
No changes will be made until at least the 2018-19 school year, according to Dr Erardi. That school year, he added, would be a tight year at Reed Intermediate School, with consecutive years evening out.
“Potentially in the year [2026-27] there would be, if the projections hold… the need to have an additional conversation around facilities and enrollment,” said Dr Erardi.
The Board of Education is expected to continue the discussion of possibly closing NMS throughout the next month. The board’s next meeting, November 1, will begin at 6:45 pm, at NHS, for the board and members of the public present to tour the high school. An analysis of how much money the school district could save with a reconfiguration of the district will also be presented at the November 1 meeting.
Dr Erardi said the committee suggested to the school board that “grade eight is a school within a school,” if moved to NHS. The fifth to seventh grade reconfiguration at Reed was also presented to the board, and Dr Erardi said, “The recommendation by the committee was not to have two separate schools. It would be one school with a defined learning practice.
“Really what you have this evening is a last standing proposal that offers reconfiguration. It offers what we believe [is], a very tight intermediate school, sustainable over ten years, and then a relook at student population,” said Dr Erardi.
After the first speaker of the evening shared concerns about “what happens in the classroom” and the homeroom models students are comfortable with being maintained, Dr Erardi said, “The design of the recommendation was built upon maintaining our present practice, looking at enhancements, and the negative factors of doing this.”
A Complement And Concerns
One resident complimented the Future Forecast Committee for its “well thought-out and reasonable” study and presentation for the board, adding the decline in enrollment has been occurring for years and questioning who can continue to afford to live in town.
A number of educators spoke during the evening. One resident said he teaches at Danbury High School and said from his experience there, it is hard for ninth graders to be with older students, “and they are ninth graders.”
NMS music teacher Jonathan Pope and retired NMS technology education teacher Don Ramsey also spoke.
Mr Pope called the middle school years “the wonder years” when children are in a unique position to figure out who they are. At that age, Mr Pope said students need their community to help them realize this, “so they can focus on academics and they can focus on building their confidence as people.” Mr Pope offered concerns with moving the seventh grade to the intermediate school and sequestering the eighth grade away from other high school students.
“I think that is not something, when we talk dollars and cents, that is going to be something that encourages families to come into Newtown, because we are known for our school district. I moved here because of what I saw happening in the Newtown [kindergarten through twelfth grade] system. I would really, really hope that beyond the dollars and cents that we look at what is working so very, very well for our students,” said Mr Pope.
Later, Mr Ramsey said the “child really is paramount” and the middle school-aged student is at an important stage developmentally. Altering the configuration of the schools, Mr Ramsey shared, could disrupt the “cocoon in the wrong place developmentally speaking.”
Resident Laura Terry said she is not concerned with the projected enrollment logistics, but is concerned with what is best for students.
“I am hoping the Board of Education is here to do what is best for our students,” said Ms Terry, sharing that she is not a fan of the proposed configuration. Later she added, “I think the configuration of a middle school and a high school is best suited for our children. So I am not a fan of what is being recommended, and I hope the Board of Education takes that into account.”
Resident Karyn Holden spoke as both a member of the Future Forecast Committee and as a parent in the district.
“The presentation that was made was not a recommendation to close a school nor was it a recommendation for Option I… It is the only option left, and if the Board of Ed chooses to close a school that would be the option that would fit in the remaining buildings,” said Ms Holden.
However, Ms Holden expressed concern for one of her children, who was among those present at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 12/14, being in eighth grade when attending NHS for the first time.
“An eighth grader in my opinion does not belong with a senior,” said Ms Holden.
Other members of the Future Forecast Committee and the public also spoke before members of the Board of Education were given time to address the audience.
“I think most board members are trying to figure out what is best for the town, what is best for our students. It is a complicated issue,” said Board of Education Chair Keith Alexander. Later he said he expects the Board of Education to discuss coming to a decision on the topic at its planned November 15 meeting.