School Reconfiguration Plans Presented at Master Planning and Visioning Community Forum

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Thursday March 31, 2016

The City of South Burlington is well known for the quality of its schools. The district has operated under a long standing model which provides learning for children in kindergarten through 5th grade in each of its three neighborhood elementary schools, transitions students to one middle school for grades 6-8, and concludes with grades 9-12 in one high school. But as demographic shifts occur in a city that is changing, and increasing educational demands are placed on students and staff alike, recent conversations have centered around whether the current model truly serves the students of today and the students of the future. 

Ideas for the future of South Burlington’s schools were presented at a community forum held in the high school auditorium March 22. Nearly 200 people gathered to hear administrators, school board members, and real estate investment advisers present an analysis of financial and educational opportunities and challenges for five different school configuration options.

School board member Martin LaLonde outlined the various pressures the district is facing, and provided a brief history of the process to-date. He noted that the board welcomes community input as they weigh the benefits of different configurations against the costs, and determine the trade offs in any of the options presented. He said the board’s focus, as it considers reconfiguration, is to provide an excellent education at a cost the community can afford and will support.

Looking back —how did we get here?

In 2014, a developer’s $7 million offer to buy the Rick Marcotte Central School property for use as a City Center mix of retail operations bordering on Williston Road and Market Street triggered conversations about the changing landscape of South Burlington. While this proposal was ultimately declined by the school board, it did accelerate dialogue around school configuration.

The Master Planning And Visioning Task Force, a joint city and school venture, made up of residents, former and current school administrators, and city professionals worked for 8 months to brainstorm what South Burlington schools could look like in the future. The 13 member task force spent time evaluating civic facility needs versus current resources, looking at city demographics, school enrollment trends, legislative initiatives, and the current configuration of the district’s schools, and considering factors such as location and consolidation.

The task force presented a draft final report, a minority report, and recommendations to the city’s steering committee June 3, 2015. The report recommended two options.

One option recommended building a single new K-4 elementary school, housing grades 5-8 in the current Tuttle Middle School, and 9-12 in the current high school. This option suggested Central,Chamberlin and Orchard schools either being sold or being re-purposed for city use.

The other option involved reconfiguring the elementary grades into two schools, K-2 and 3-5, with one newly built school and utilizing one existing (Orchard)school, grades 6-8 in the current Tuttle Middle School, and 9-12 in the current high school. In this option, Chamberlin and Central schools would be sold or re-purposed by the city.

Superintendent David Young subsequently supported the recommendation to consolidate into one newly constructed elementary school.

Next, the school board looked at the recommendations, and considered additional possibilities. They determined a total of five scenarios and began conducting due diligence to fully investigate all the options.

Superintendent Provides Educational Assessment

At the March 22 forum, Young set the stage for presentation of the 5 scenarios by discussing how the district’s schools have changed over the years as a result of demographic and societal trends.

District principals provided overviews and statistics for each school and discussed the benefits and challenges their schools currently face.

Chamberlin Principal Holly Rouelle noted that class size ranges between 14-24 students, and that students may walk or bike to school, or have a 30 minute bus ride. Eighteen different languages are spoken at home by students. Thirty-seven percent of the 230 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Similar figures were cited at Orchard School. Principal Mark Trifilio reported that 29 different languages are spoken by students at home, 25 percent do not have English as a first language, and 1 in 4 of the 365 students qualify for free and reduced lunch. At Central School, Principal Brent Coon noted that 25 different languages are spoken by students at home, 15 percent of the 355 students receive free lunch, and class sizes range from 14-21. All three principals noted a wide variety of enriching activities enjoyed by their students.

Principal Karsten Schlenter said that Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School enrolls 521 students and has an average class size of 22. The diverse population includes students from 40 nations. Classes such as world languages and many extra-curricular activities enrich the education of students in grades 6-8. Nineteen percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch.

South Burlington High School Assistant Principal Pat Philips noted strong community support for the school, which enrolls 950 students. Although changes are happening to education as a whole, the high school structure has remained unchanged; the building is still set up for a traditional lecture style of learning. There is growing pressure to have personalized learning plans (PLPs) and he said there is also a need to meet ADA compliance and provide more collaborative working spaces. Twenty-five percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch. More than twenty-five languages are spoken by students at the high school.

Young and the administrative team believe that the district has arrived at a junction in history where a bold decision needs to be made. Removal of over 100 homes in the airport neighborhood near Chamberlin, noise, traffic and safety issues, City Center growth and development, and declining enrollment were all noted as concerns.

Young provided diagrams showing what 21st century collaborative spaces could look like and stressed the importance of any new configuration continuing to support diversity, equity and inclusion, academic excellence and consistency. Fostering interpersonal relationships and safety and well being were also ranked high in terms of priorities for the district.

The superintendent supports scenario 5, consolidation to one K-4 new elementary school. As benefits to this model, Young noted greater educational opportunities for all students, enhanced equity, consistency in demographics PreK-12, and consistent class size. He also believes that this plan will address safety concerns including traffic, airport noise, and City Center activity, and that collaboration between educators would be increased and less logistically challenging.

Community Commentary and Questions

The final portion of the meeting was reserved for questions from the public. Some of the comments and questions will require additional research, and board members will compile a list of frequently asked questions and answers. Long time board member Elizabeth Fitzgerald stressed that the board has not made any decision, “nor do we have a preferred alternative,” she said.

Several audience members expressed concern about losing the community’s neighborhood elementary schools. Apprehension about increased commute times, loss of personalized learning and the disruption of elementary schools as anchors to the community were also mentioned. Since Young presented consolidation as the administration’s preferred option, residents wanted to see more data as to why and how this option best serves student needs while preserving the reputation of South Burlington schools. The overarching theme of the comments seemed to be “small schools are better.” Each comment was met with applause from the audience.

Opportunities for Feedback

The board announced that additional meetings will be held at each of the three elementary schools. Board member Bridget Burkhardt explained that each small meeting will provide more opportunity for feedback.

In addition, the board will be evaluating the costs and benefits of doing a survey. They hope to have the bulk of their information from public feedback and other resources before the summer so they can continue their research. Ideally, a recommendation would come forth in the fall.

Missed the meeting? You can view this event on RETN. Links to the presentation are available on the district website.
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SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent