TOWNSHEND — The West River Education District will expand its exploration of having a central campus between Townshend Elementary School and Leland Gray Union Middle and High school next door, with an immersive learning center at Jamaica Village School and early learning center at NewBrook Elementary School.
Board member Drew Hazelton said Long Term Planning Sub-Committee members visited both buildings envisioned to be part of the Townshend campus, looked at available resources and determined what they recommended in August is likely to be feasible.
“With that, we’re still feeling pretty confident this is a worthwhile proposal to get a deeper exploration of,” he said Monday at a board meeting.
Hazelton said having a single campus would allow for more collaboration and larger student cohorts, and an immersive learning center would provide more hands-on educational opportunities. Buildings would be used to their full potential with room to grow, board member Lindsey Bertram said.
“We just have to be smart about how we use our space,” said board member Dana West, who suggested the possibility of hiring a consultant to assist with reconfigurations of the buildings. “We’re trying to bring this district together.”
The committee doesn’t have specific details on the financials yet. After a 9-1 vote by the board at Monday’s meeting, the district will move forward with planning by directing administrators to research costs.
Superintendent Bill Anton said the district will incur one-time costs related to changing up the school buildings, then there will be ongoing operational expenses. At the time of the meeting, he didn’t anticipate the operational costs for the new plan would exceed current ones.
Administrators will be discussing their findings at a board meeting on Oct. 25. Hazelton said the committee wants to start scheduling small group sessions with the public to gather more input.
The Townshend Elementary building would serve K-4 students and the L&G building would be for grades 5-12. Prompted by concerns about long travel distances for the youngest children, Bertram said the committee is discussing the potential for pre-k programming on either end of the West River Valley.
On Monday, about 30 participants were counted in Zoom and three people attended in person. Community member Richard Burbridge expressed concern about moving fifth graders to L&G after relocating sixth graders there in 2019.
Declining student enrollment is causing the district to struggle and look at cutting programs, Hazelton said.
“We believe that for the same financial investment, we can offer better program for our kids by going to a single campus model,” he said. “What we can’t do is continue doing what we’re doing and expecting different results.”
Karen Ameden of Jamaica, who attended committee meetings where the plan was formulated, said she’s “extremely excited about this.”
“We’ve watched them go through all sorts of ideas,” she said. “So many people have a hard time with change but this will be wonderful for these kids and you’ll end up with more kids because of this.”
She urged the community to continue asking questions and keep an open mind.
Lindsay Guido-Williams, whose children go to Townshend Elementary and NewBrook, questioned if the district is considering the ongoing costs and challenges of becoming obsolete. She asked how materials and equipment will be kept up to date at an immersive learning center where robotics, health care and technology programs are envisioned to occur. She also worried that the proposal was lacking applicable examples of how elementary aged students would benefit from these changes and questioned the choice of placing the burden of school transitions on our younger students.
Renee Merluzzi, a parent, shared concerns about the costs associated with “a whole rework of the building” to avoid cramping in the elementary school.