Nearly 80 people gathered Monday night in the Fairview Elementary School gymnasium and sat at the tables students eat lunch at every school day. The topic at hand during the gathering, which at times appeared to be a neighborhood get-together, was restructuring the district's three public elementaries.
Spencer Superintendent Terry Hemann facilitated the meeting. Committee members who have studied the matter and four of five Spencer school board members were also in attendance, offering insights and listening to comments.
Perceived pros and cons associated with both the district's current elementary structure and a proposed grade-alike system were shared.
The discussion is not unfamiliar to Spencer residents. The grade-alike concept was first researched locally in 2000. Following a unanimous recommendation for the district to stay with its current grade configuration in its elementary buildings, committee members recommended the issue be re-evaluated.
The question of whether Spencer should pursue a grade-alike concept was broached again during the 2005 district budgeting process, causing a community-wide discussion to reconvene. Board members were presented with 1,145 signatures in November 2006, from people requesting a vote against the grade-alike proposal and to leave the district's traditional elementary grade structure as is. The board's ensuing 3-to-2 vote favored the public's sentiment at the time. It also included a directive to "proceed to plan for implementation of the alternate avenues, as recommended by the administration, to improve and unify the instructional practices across the three elementary buildings."
The possible elementary-restructuring matter was re-introduced this fall.
As Hemann described the district's proposed grade-alike elementary structure Monday night, he mentioned special education students would be educated in each building. Based on the new plan, Child's Garden through first grade students would be housed in the Johnson Elementary building, second and third grade students would be served in the Fairview Elementary building, fourth and fifth grade pupils would be hosted in the Lincoln Elementary building.
As Hemann and study committee members compared Spencer's past and present elementary structures, Johnson fifth grade teacher Amy Thompson described a situation in which students are currently receiving similar experiences. Teachers have also increased their collaboration and discussion time between the three buildings, she added.
When Lucas DeWitt addressed a future with grade-alike elementary schools, he stated, "Your current structure is very good."
Spencer's elementary principal then delved into the uncomfortable situation he's had to tackle the last few years, of reassigning students to other buildings if their grade level was over capacity at one building.
During a question-and-answer portion of the meeting in which committee members answered questions they believed the public wanted addressed, Hemann stated, "Overall, staff are supportive of a grade-alike system. Last year, many elementary staff members signed letters supporting a grade-alike system and submitted them to the school board."
He then read recent survey results from 61 staff members showing that 77 percent approve moving to a grade-alike system.
Questions pertaining to the transportation of students and how children might benefit from grade-alike elementary schools (below) were also answered. When the question was broached of what the financial impact of moving to a grade-alike structure would mean for the district's coffers, Hemann said, "While there may be some initial expenses with making a transition to a grade-alike structure, there will be more sharing of materials and resources within grade levels."
"The district does not anticipate any major expenses with this change," he added.
The public's questions were answered during the gathering's final segment.
Serena Rustad, the mother of four students open enrolled into the district, explained she very carefully chose Fairview Elementary School for her children to attend.
"I went to several different towns to choose a school I felt was going to be what my family was looking for," she said with a quivering voice. " ... My daughter was a victim of being switched to a different school. It hurt her more than I can tell you. She's in fourth grade now and she was switched in her first grade year. She is still terrified to make that change again. She does not want to do it. Grade-alike has her so scared it makes her sick."
Rustad drew the evening's first round of applause when she asked if other options, such as teachers changing buildings, had been looked at.
Tara Lopez queried whether restructuring Spencer's elementary buildings would really improve students' test scores.
"The committee talked about research and, in the end, the decision was made we're going to focus on what we feel is best for kids of Spencer," Hemann replied. "I think you can find research both in support and to negate grade-alike. You can find whatever you're going to look for. There's not a lot of data out there that's going to show it either way."
While another woman articulated concerns about children being bullied, singled out and then "stuck" with tormenting peers, mother Kashia Nolin shared she has four children who attend classes at Johnson Elementary School. Her youngest, a preschool student, is blind.
"You talk about diversity and kids getting to know these special needs kids," Nolin said, "but right now the whole building knows about him. But if you separate them, only a couple years around him are going to even have exposure to him before they get to sixth grade at the middle school."
As the meeting drew to a close, Hemann told those who had gathered, "For me personally, I can deal with this any way this goes. ... Personally, after looking at this with the group and talking to other schools in other towns that have done this, I think we can provide a better education for our kids."
As participants talked of packing the Nov. 22 school board meeting room -- when board members will review and possibly decide the district's elementary structure -- they were also encouraged to telephone or write letters to board members before the meeting.
* Public meetings similar to the one conducted Monday night are also scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight at Johnson Elementary School and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lincoln Elementary School.
The reality is we do not have neighborhood schools.
* Only 21 percent of elementary students walk or bike to school.
* 24 percent of elementary students ride a bus to school.
* 54 percent of elementary students are being transported in a personal vehicle.
* Preschool and KinderKids are grade-alike.
* Some of our students with disabilities can only attend at
* Increased interaction with students of varying abilities, cultures and interests.
* Collaboration will produce stronger teaching (in the sharing of strategies and best practices).
* Maximize teacher strengths at each grade level.
* More efficient use of resources, resulting in more opportunities for students.
* All students in a grade level transition together.
* Buses would transport grade-alike students directly from each elementary school to their school of attendance.
* Elementary school shuttles would run from 8:10 - 8:20 a.m. and from 3:20 - 3:30 p.m.
* Students could have breakfast at any school beginning at 7:50 a.m. before being bused.
* In order to ensure positive transitions between school buildings the district will:
-- Conduct new building orientations with families.
-- Have students spend time in their next building with teachers and in classrooms.
* Other possible activities:
-- Establish a pen-pal program with students in their next schools.
-- Classes could Skype with classes in other buildings.
*Taken from the Spencer Community Schools' elementary restructuring presentation