Southern Valley middle school merger plan criticized

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READSBORO — A plan to move seventh- and eighth-graders from Readsboro Central School to Halifax Elementary School for at least two years has upset parents and caused school board members to wonder if they moved too quickly.

"I apologize for what seems to have been to many people a rash decision, but I made the decision to vote for it," Helyn Strom Henriksen, Southern Valley Unified Union School District board member from Readsboro, said during a meeting last week. "But I do believe that our middle schoolers need more of a middle school experience than they might be getting here."

Next year, Halifax expects to have 17 students in seventh and eighth grades. Readsboro anticipates sending four students.

Sandy Pentak-Cohen, principal in both schools, proposed the change and received approval from the board to move forward at its previous meeting. She said she started looking into the merger around April "but it wasn't the first time the teaching dean and myself had discussed the needs of the middle school because we've been having difficulty finding qualified teachers."

"And my concern as principal is making sure kids have a solid education," she said. "And if I cannot put qualified people into roles and I cannot give middle schoolers the collaboration, the project-based pieces, then I'm concerned that I'm not doing the best for students."

Pentak-Cohen said Readsboro Central does not have the "academic excellence" it's had in the past.

"I need to build it with the kiddos I have and try to keep this school viable," she said. "It used to be real strong but it needs work. It needs work immediately."

Henriksen said it came as a shock to many residents to see the word "proposal" used in board documents but then meetings with students and parents were soon scheduled to discuss the change. Given the distance for some students, she suggested it might have been better to propose school choice for seventh- and eighth-graders.

"I think parents feel a very large decision was made in a total vacuum," said Jim Irace, a parent.

Cindy Florence said she and other parents thought the proposal was still in discussion stages since transportation provisions were still being figured out. She spoke in favor of offering school choice rather than moving students.

Board Chairman Homer Sumner told parents he could understand where they were coming from.

"For me, it comes down to the fact that we obviously could hire someone to transport the kids," he said. "That's just a given. How much it's going to cost? I don't have that in my crystal ball. If it's going to be $4,000 or $5,000 or less, that's not a big deal. It's a much bigger deal, the education for the students. And as much as I like schools being in your own community, I don't like classes that only have one kid in it or two kids or three kids."

Sumner said the education at Halifax Elementary would be "far better" for those students given the limited number of students at Readsboro Central. Pentak-Cohen anticipates Readsboro Central will have bigger classes after two years, then seventh- and eighth-graders could return to the building.

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"You move children? They're staying there," said Charlene Candiloro, a parent. "That's reality. This is not the movies."

Candiloro expressed concern about busing the students in the winter months. An approximately 14.4-mile drive between the two schools is estimated to take 25 minutes, according to one route shown on mapquest.com.

Florence worried about adjustment issues for students going to Halifax for seventh grade in the second year then returning to Readsboro for eighth grade.

Jane Higley, a parent, told the board she was "so grateful for this switchover."

"I have an eighth-grader who has four other peers in the whole entire middle school," she said. "That stinks. And plus, the fact that we've been here for two-and-half years. My kids don't automatically join in. Cliques are set. My kids also deserve an opportunity to have other kids, to have other friends. That doesn't happen here because there aren't enough kids. There aren't enough things for them to do. They go from one teacher to the other, which is great. They're great teachers. I love them and appreciate them. But they also need an opportunity to have a middle school experience. How hard is it going to be to go from five [students] to high school? That's insane."

Irace said he grew up in Stamford and attended classes with small numbers of students.

"Smalltown life hasn't changed much but that's a big part of why extracurricular and other sorts of social activities are a part of our lives," he said. "And if we have to send my kid up there, that shatters that opportunity."

Irace said the school board's vote should have included feedback from parents and community members.

Bob Marechal of Readsboro asked if the vote could be overturned. Board member Paul Blais said that by Robert's Rules, a vote can only be appealed in a motion made by a board member on the winning side. In this case, all members voted in favor.

Mary King, board member from Readsboro, cited the difficulty in finding teachers and the school only having five students in the two grades in her reasoning for voting for the proposal.

"This is a golden opportunity in my eyes for these five kids to go and have better interactions with other kids and learn more," she said. "They would be able to do extracurricular activities probably in a different place than North Adams."

Henriksen said she wished more information had been given to the public to get more input from parents and taxpayers. So did Caraline Sprague, board member from Readsboro.

"Hearing this, it upsets me," said Sprague.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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