School officials are analyzing plans for the possible reconfiguration of Peter Muschal Elementary, Clara Barton Elementary, and MacFarland Intermediate schools to deal with problems of reaching capacity and providing resources for special needs students.
Bordentown parents and residents are being surveyed regarding their opinions on plans ranging from making no change up to complete redistricting, with various plans included regarding the redistribution of grades within the three schools. At press time, results have yet to be released.
According to a slideshow presented by district superintendent Edward Forsthoffer at meetings on Oct. 5, 10 and 12, there is a higher proportion of special needs students at CBS (75 out of 237 students), a kindergarten to third grade school, than at PMS (34 out of 514 students), a pre-kindergarten to third grade school.
This occurred because during the last district realignment in 2006, there was “more room at CBS (for special needs students) than at PMS,” Forsthoffer said in an e-mail interview. Soon, though, the disparity of resources for special needs students became a problem that the administration has been aware of since at least in 2014. “However, the problem has worsened a little bit each year,” he said.
Despite those obstacles, Forsthoffer said children with special needs should have as “authentic” a learning experience as possible, so the administration committed to not having the children jumping back and forth between the two K-to-3 schools.
Additionally, MIS is reaching capacity with 385 students. As of the 2017-2018 school year, there are eight sections for 4th grade, seven sections for 5th grade and only one unused room.
As the eight sections move up to 5th grade next year and the combined nine sections of 3rd grade between PMS and CBS enter 4th grade, the school may face issues of oversized classes or a lack of resources. At the same time, a “very modest decrease” in enrollment leaves some open space in CBS and PMS, Forsthoffer said.
After the administration recognized that overcapacity was becoming a pressing issue in MIS and reconfirmed that they wanted special needs students to have the same educational benefits as their peers, the administration developed various plans to potentially alleviate both these problems. The pros and cons were laid out in a PowerPoint presentation that was shown to parents of students in all three schools.
In these presentations, Forsthoffer went over six possible options: leave as is, a campus plan, three K-5 schools, the Princeton plan, special education modification and full-scale redistricting. Board of Education vice president Joshua Fausti said funds for any of those plans are not specifically labeled in the budget, but the board has received around $50,000 from the $280,000 in state aid for possible costs such as the implementation of these plans.
The “leave as is” option would make no immediate changes to the schools, and would leave problems to be solved at a later date, if necessary.
On the other end, a full scale redistricting would require a complete reanalysis of each neighborhood and school, thus opening the possibility of school transfers.
The other four plans were developed by the administrative team based on their research and professional experience. First introduced was the campus plan, in which PMS would become a K-5 school, and CBS and MIS would combine as a K-5 campus due to their close promimity to each other. This proposed plan would lower the number of transitions a student would need to make between schools, have minimal additional costs and lead to similar student body populations in the two schools. However, while the campus plan does help alleviate the capacity problem, it would require some redistricting and does little to fix the disparity of special needs students.
Martin believes that ‘you should conform your program around a student, not your student around a program.’
The K-5 plan would transform all three schools into K-5 schools. This plan would preserve the “neighborhood” quality of the schools and lower the transitions between schools, however there are a sizable amount of costs involved. For example, MIS would have to be retrofitted to become a lower elementary school, which would involve lowering the heights of water fountains and constructing bathrooms in rooms designated for kindergarten classes. The K-5 plan may also include having special education classes at only certain schools.
The Princeton plan, named because this model was used by the Princeton school district, would involve having each student spend time at all three schools by splitting up certain grades to certain schools. During the presentation, Forsthoffer mentioned that the administration has not yet decided which grades would be assigned to which schools. This plan could increase efficiency and help with the special education concern by having grade-specific programs in one school instead of multiple. However, this plan would increase the amount of transitions a student would need to make.
Lastly, Forsthoffer introduced the special education modification plan, which would focus entirely on solving the special education problem and not on the capacity problems. This plan would incur some costs based on the expansion of special education staff and materials and would still require some redistricting to somewhat equalize the special needs students in each school.
These plans elicited a variety of responses from parents, staff and community residents. PMS PTA president Carolyn Martin said she appreciated the efforts of the administration in providing information and holding a survey, but believes that they left out some important details. “For redistricting, people would want to know where the lines would be drawn before they made the decision,” she said.
While Martin has not seen a general consensus between parents in favor of a certain reconfiguration plan, she has found that “a lot of people are absolutely against the Princeton plan because they don’t like students changing schools every two years. It’s hard enough to build a rapport in a school, and it can cause anxiety.”
Overall, Martin believes that “you should conform your program around a student, not your student around a program. I’ve seen it too many times that a student will start in PMS, make friends and then they are transferred to CBS because that’s where the extra help is, and I don’t think the administration really look at the full impact that has on the child. I hope that, whatever plan they implement, they take that into consideration and they offer special services at every school.”
Fausti also added his personal opinion on what the community should consider.
“I can’t speak for the board, but I can speak for myself, and I can say that an important thing to consider is that in Bordentown City, the parents have a pretty special ability to walk their children to elementary school all the way up to 5th grade, and to take that away would be a big mistake,” he said. “I think that’s part of what makes our school district and Bordentown City special.”
Fausti hopes that students from Bordentown City remain in CBS and MIS, but said he “defers to the survey results and administration, and we’ll see what happens when it comes up for a vote.”
After the survey results are tabulated, the administration will use the responses as a factor, along with costs and concerns of possible plans, to come up with a proposal that Forsthoffer hopes to bring to the board by early 2018.
“The survey is not intended as a ‘vote,’” he said. “It is one more piece of data for me to make an informed decision. It would be great if the option that receives the most support is the one that I choose but, ultimately, I will have to recommend what I think is best for the district.
Change is always difficult, Forsthoffer said, but he believes parents and residents are aware of the problems of the current design.
“Many parents have reached out to me because, although they are struggling with change occurring for their own children, they recognize that the current design is less than perfect,” he said. “It was important to the board and myself to get feedback from our parents. Ultimately, the recommendation must come from me. I am hopeful that the parents realize that I will be recommending what I believe is right for the district.”