Thoughts on Roosevelt Middle School

Last night (February 11, 2014), the Board voted to close Roosevelt as a Middle School, transitioning the students from Roosevelt into Slade and Pulaski next year, and re-purposing Roosevelt Middle School as both the Satellite Careers Academy and swing space for Gaffney Elementary School. I voted in favor of this plan and I wanted to take a moment to share my reasons and thoughts.

The Issues

This decision was not merely one isolated issue, but was rather a group of issues that were intricately entwined. The issues that I had in mind when making my decision were the following:

  1. The need for swing space to accommodate Gaffney Elementary School during next years renovation.
  2. The need for a location for a much needed Career’s Academy to help deal with under-credited high school students who would be lost in the traditional high school setting.
  3. The future of the Roosevelt students and the implications, both short and long term, of closing Roosevelt as a Middle School.

These three issues were ones that the Superintendent and his cabinet have been addressing for over the past 3 months since I’ve been on the board  and have historically been under consideration for a far longer period of time.

The Gaffney Renovation

Currently New Britain has many elementary schools that are in need of renovations. This includes not only updating facilities to accommodate more modern technology, but also to expand our elementary school capacity. Over the past few years the Board of Education has been attempting to reduce class sizes, but one factor which severely limits this process is the lack of physical space in terms of classrooms. As an example, at Vance school Band is taught in a hallway because of lack of classroom space.

Clearly there is a need over the next 5 to 10 years to renovate our elementary schools so that they may be viable centers of education for decades to come. This, however, requires us to have an identified “swing space” where schools may be housed during construction. Due to the smaller student population at our middle schools Roosevelt was identified as a possible place. Throughout this discussion other alternatives were raised but were either unfeasible or unworkable.

Leave Roosevelt as is and combine it with the Gaffney population – This would not work because Gaffney currently uses around 33 classrooms. There are only 44 classrooms within Roosevelt School. You could not house these two populations together.

Divide Gaffney among existing elementary schools – As I already mentioned above we are currently running against the upper limits of our facilities in our elementary schools. We don’t have the physical space in our elementary schools with vacant classrooms. There is not enough room to absorb the 500+ Gaffney students into our other elementary schools.

Put some Gaffney students at Roosevelt and divide the rest among the other schools – In addition to being a sheer logistics nightmare, this is extremely disruptive for the Gaffney community and the student population for years to come. While closing a school is difficult, this is a change that once made establishes a norm. Students can be prepared for the transition and once they transition to their new school their routine would settle down. This seems far favorable to repeatedly dividing and reuniting Gaffney’s population (or any other elementary school that may need swing space in the future.)

Use a commercial space, church space, or parochial school space – Commercial spaces would need to be brought up to code which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that is not available (this is in addition to rent). Additionally there are no identified spaces that could handle the full capacity of Gaffney students and dividing the population creates the same problems I mentioned above.

Make use of distance learning, have Gaffney students stay at home and telecommute into the classroom – While distance learning can often be utilized in a high school setting even with these older learners it has limited effectiveness. There are no successful models for distance only learning for elementary students. Additionally this would provide an undo hardship upon parents who may have work and are unable to stay home.

Out of all the presented alternatives forwarded by both community members and other Board members the decision to keep Gaffney’s student body intact for the year of renovation made the most sense in terms of the children’s well being and education. Aside from other concerns, this factor heavily influenced my decision.

The long and short term future of Roosevelt students

When this matter was being considered I asked the district to provide numbers for what we may see in terms of middle school enrollment over the next 5 years. The numbers provided showed that over the next 5 years if every student in New Britain stays enrolled in the public schools, that our middle schools will remain steady for the next 3 years and then there will be a slight uptick in our population. The current numbers for 4th grade down to Kindergarten fluctuate by less than 100 students. However, as we know these numbers do change and there may be a need to reopen a middle school in the future.

That is why it is important to note that this is not a building closing. If three years from now we need a middle school building to deal with a growing population we will have a building ready for use. If the Satellite academy is successful and thriving at that time then considerations will need to be made as to how we can address those needs as well. This decision was not made ignorant of the potential needs in the future, but mindful of those needs. As a population fluctuates and grows and shrinks school enrollments change. Part of the reason Roosevelt exists as a Middle School today is because there was a need for it in the past. Just 10 years ago the total population at Slade, Roosevelt, and Pulaski were over twice what the total population is today. Clearly there is not as great a need for space as there was before.

When looking at the actual numbers of students who will experience an addition “transition” because of this change we are talking about less than 300 students. The current 8th grade population at Roosevelt will matriculate to the High School next year regardless of this change and the current 5th grade populations at Chamberlain and Holmes would be moving to a new school already. The bulk of the students affected are current 6th and 7th grade students at Roosevelt. While it is hard to ask students to make this change I feel it is necessary for reasons I’ve stated above.

The Satellite Careers Academy

This issue, while pertinent to the discussion, was not my primary driving decision. However, it is important to address. We currently have over 30% of our student population who are under-credited in the high school. Many students in this group are not discipline problems, many are chronically absent, many may be suffering from educational shortfalls that have left them unprepared for high schools.

Students like these fall through the educational cracks that exist in a traditional high school. While we can hope for a future where our elementary and middle schools are able to identify and help these students before they get to the high school level, and while that should a goal, that is not the reality within we operate today. The Satellite Careers academy is looking to build on the model of success of the Health Academy, but with a broader focus. Instead of specializing in one area (healthcare) it hopes to have the flexibility to craft many different individualized programs.

Personally I feel that in theory this program sounds like a very good idea to address a definite need in our student population. However, I will want to see overwhelming results in the first two years of it’s operation.

How this related to the current debate over Roosevelt Middle School is finding a location for the program. As with the Gaffney swing space issue, Roosevelt was identified as a potential location and the fact that it and the Satellite program could coexist was extremely fortunate.

As with the Gaffney swing space many other thoughts were raised, and while there were other ideas many of them the proposals would not fit the program.

House the program in the current high school – The goal is to create an extended day flexible program. Housing it within a separate building removes some of the other “distractions” associated with the main high school such as negative peer pressure, and allows students to take greater ownership in the program.

Find an alternative location – There are not sufficient locations which could be rented and use of non-schools would require extensive spending in terms of bringing the building up to code.

Build a new school for this program – While I am sure everyone would like to have sufficient funding available to do this, it is not economically feasible. Using Roosevelt requires little to no costs in terms of changes that may need to be made to the building. Why build new when we have a space we can currently utilize?

Final thoughts

While I understand any Roosevelt parent who may be disappointed in my decision, however, no matter what was done in this situation someone was going to be upset. My decision was made after long hours of thought and consideration of the alternatives that were presented and ones that I thought of on my own. While others may disagree with me understand my vote was not a response to pressure, it was not a response to scare tactics, it was a careful and balanced consideration of the needs of all students in our district and the merits of the arguments made by both sides of the debate.

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