Parents call for reversal of plan to put 6th-graders in L&G
WEST RIVER VALLEY — Parents are very upset over a decision to have sixth graders attend Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School next school year.
"Our kids will be the guinea pigs based on a skeletal plan," Tina Bills, of Brookline, said. "There's no benefits."
Last week, Bills presented a petition to the West River Modified Union Education District board with about 226 signatures asking board members "to stop, listen and reflect on what we, the public, are asking you to do, and that is to reverse the decision to move the sixth graders to L&G."
A group of parents interviewed for this story said they feel their voices have not been heard and the matter should be put to town-wide votes in the communities it will affect. That would include Jamaica and Townshend, which have their own elementary schools, and Brookline and Newfane, where children go to NewBrook Elementary School.
In a previous interview, Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton said school officials were looking at how classes in the L&G building would be physically structured and what programmatic benefits sixth graders might gain. He acknowledged it would be "a big change."
"I think everybody's lens is on the students and what are the possibilities to create opportunities for our students," he said. "I think everyone is unified in that."
About one year ago, the board began looking at how to best run the unified school district starting July 1, 2019 after residents in the Windham Central Supervisory Union had voted 446-146 in favor of a merger under Act 46. The law encourages consolidation to improve equity and find inefficiencies.
Brookline Select Board member Chris Webb said no financial documents or data have been provided to back up the latest plan.
"It's not conclusive that it's a move that should be done," he said.
Webb said the district has approved a plan that would disrupt day-to-day operations at schools, something the study committee told the community would not happen.
"We were happy with that," Bills said. "It made sense."
But the latest proposal has "truly divided our community," Bills said.
"It's hard," she said. "It's ridiculous is what it is."
An earlier plan that was later scrapped would have split up the schools by age groups. Jessie Thomas, of Townshend, would have had a child at each of the four schools. She said that would have created difficulties if two of them simultaneously had to be picked up during an emergency, illness or other event.
"It's like you shocked us with this," Webb said of the board with the first plan, which had been developed by Windham Central administrators. "Are we supposed to think this one is moderately better?"
Bills said a "bare bones" plan has been presented to the public.
"We don't know anything about it other than it's going to be 107-minute classes, which is way too much for our kids," she said.
Currently, Bills said, elementary school students have 30 or 35 minutes for lunch with two and sometimes three recesses. She said the new plan would only give the children 25 minutes to eat their lunch.
Bills also worried about 10-year-olds playing in sports against children as old as 14. She said some of the older student athletes will have reached puberty and will be much stronger and heavier, and sixth graders will be sitting during games when they should be "top dogs" learning the fundamentals of the sports.
Kristine Arnold, of Newfane, said she found it "problematic" that students, teachers and parents are just finding out about the move now.
"How can those teachers really prepare those kids for Leland & Gray?" she said. "That's a big move. I know they're talking about a middle school model but it's housed in a high school ... They're up there with kids who are 18 years old."
The younger students would mostly have their classes on the upper floor known as the A Level, according to the plan. But school officials have said the building is an octagon and it would be difficult to separate the younger and older students for the entire day.
Bills said she believes her child would be able to make it academically but it is his emotional well being she worries about with the move. She also believes longer classes could create behavioral issues in students who had not had them before.
Thomas said her son, who has an individualized education program, is not doing school work because he believes the school will hold him back.
"He is that scared," she added.
Jenifer Meagher, of Townshend, said part of the merger was about expanding opportunities but she worries sixth graders are going to lose things such as spelling bees, recess time, certain after-school programming, mentoring opportunities, sixth grade field trips and a week of circus programming. She said the physical growth spurt sixth graders go through will be made more awkward when they are around older students.
LeeAnn Jillson, of Brookline, wondered whether the Leland & Gray budget would include Windham as the community has historically sent students to the middle school but is not part of the merger. The State Board of Education will soon determine whether to take the Vermont Agency of Education's recommendation to make Windham join the district.
Vermont's legal definition of elementary education is "a program of public education adapted to the needs of students in prekindergarten, kindergarten and the first six grades." And although it does not restrict how grades are divided in buildings, Jillson said, "that's what we're talking about when we talk about elementary school in Vermont. We have that model and now we're trying to change that model."
The petition says that according to Vermont assessment results, elementary schools in the district are 11.33 percent above the state average in English and 12.66 percent above the state average in math while Leland & Gray is currently 10 percent below the state average for English and 6 percent below the state average in math.
"We believe our children deserve to be children and left in the sixth grade with all the benefits and privileges that they are accustomed to in the elementary school," the petition says. "Please support and represent the majority of your voters."
The question that keeps popping up, Webb said, is "why does this have to happen so quickly?"
"I don't understand the need to shock the public with this," he said. "Is there some underlying thing that's not being communicated out to us? There can be a lot of rumors and speculation but we can't get answers."
The Act 46 study committee showed enrollment numbers at the elementary schools "holding steady" in its report. But L&G was projected to continuously decline, going from more than 375 students in 2008 to about 250 in 2021.
Parents said they were told the plan to move sixth grades would allow the district to offer more pre-k spots.
"I think it was 30 kids," Bills said, noting that the district could be penalized if per-pupil spending went over a certain limit.
During a Sept. 11 meeting, L&G Principal Bob Thibault said two teachers would be needed for teaching sixth and seventh graders. Later, those teachers would also be in eighth grade classes.
"We believe this concept ... gives the sixth graders significant time to transition," he said, referring to how students would go from having one or two teachers in their elementary school year to multiple teachers at the middle school.
Thibault, who had been asked by the board to develop the plan, said the school is "too small" not to notice troubling issues with students. Addressing Bills' concerns about students lacking time outdoors, he said seventh and eighth graders sometimes get to go out after they finish eating lunch.
"Sixth graders need unstructured time to play," Joyce Van Pamelen, sixth grade teacher at NewBrook, told the board. "If all their time to 'play' is really not play then they're not getting play."
Van Pamelen said sixth graders at her school like to play with their younger friends at recess and enjoy being young "because they are young."
"I just feel it's happening too fast," she said when questioning how officials got the plan together in such a short period of time.
Board Chairman Joe Winrich told meeting attendees the goal was to expand opportunities for kids.
"Within a school system, decisions will always have impacts," Anton said Monday in an email, "but the conversations of the board have been around increasing opportunities for students as a focus."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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