BARNEGAT, NJ – Last night, Barnegat High School’s parking lot was filled to capacity. And, most of the cars didn’t belong to people who came out to see a fashion show or partake in a social security seminar. Parents who huddled into the crowded media room wanted answers. Could neighborhood elementary schools become a thing of the past in Barnegat?
School officials cite underperformance and inequity in classroom size as justification for change. The administration considered a number of scenarios to initiate district improvements. When parents balked at the concept of reconfiguration last year, the issue was tabled.
According to Dr. Brian Latwis, Superintendent of Schools, he listened to the concerns of various stakeholders who would be impacted by proposed changes. School administrators, staff, and parents had the opportunity to join sub-committees to review issues and refine plans.
Reconfiguration would mean using current elementary buildings to band children by grade levels. This would result in students changing schools every two years until high school. They would essentially attend classes with the same set of children from PreK-12.
“This is one of the benefits of the grade-banding model,” shared Latwis. “The kids won’t have a big transition when they get to sixth grade and don’t know the kids from the other elementary schools. Student relationships would start building at a very young age.”
As Latwis sees it, this is preferable to the adjustment sixth-graders typically make. By that age, children are more inclined to evaluate others as far as their clothes and even social status. The reconfiguration could potentially lower the incidence of bullying within the schools.
The concept of keeping things as they are is another option considered by the district. However, most agree that this fails to provide an adequate solution. Another alternative is redistricting the schools– essentially redrawing the lines to round out classroom sizes.
“The Board will take ownership of what happens with this issue after the third week of February,” shared Board of Education President Michael J. Hickey. “By that time, the Administration will have given us their final recommendation as to what course of action should be followed.”
At a special meeting in February, the Board of Education will deliberate and vote on what changes will be made. “This will be done in public after a comprehensive presentation that should last about sixty minutes,” Hickey continued.
The board president said that the options have been narrowed down to redistricting or reconfiguration. Hickey cited the expertise of nineteen educators who have analyzed the data and dismissed what they saw as non-viable options.
George Fedorczyk, Jr., who has been an active participant in subcommittees, questioned the limitation to two alternatives. He called upon board members to look at all choices before making their decisions.
“There hasn’t been any discussion about the sister school system in any of the committee meetings,” said Fedorczyk. “We’ve just been told that it’s not going to work.”
Latwis said he plans to share a side by side comparison of all considered models in templated form next week. The outline will include the pros and cons of each, as well as best guesses as far as corresponding proposed budgets. State aid numbers don’t get released until March or April, at which time the numbers will be finalized.
“We haven’t had any indication that our state aid is going to be adjusted,” Latwis continued. “The key comparisons as far as financial impact would be moving costs, which would be relevant in both redistricting and reconfiguration.”
Reconfiguration would allow the district to balance classroom sizes in one location rather than in four separate ones. As a result of grade levels operating as a sole unit, the district would be able to eliminate sections and reallocate staff. Conversely, redistricting would mean increasing sections and the high cost associated with hiring additional employees.
In freeing up staff, some teachers would become master teachers or coaches. They would evaluate data and collaborate with other staff members. Latwis admitted that there is no research showing any direct correlation on whether a K-5 or grade-banded model works better.
“However, there is research that shows that collaboration among teachers and adding master teachers or coaches – both have a positive impact on student learning,” he continued.
Nora Green, who is both a parent of Barnegat school children and fifth-grade teacher in the system, agreed. She finds the data that comes from regular testing helps her tremendously.
“When I saw students struggle in a particular area, I was able to turn to Sue Mayo as master teacher for support and direction. If there’s a way for us to get more master teachers, we are going to see growth in our scores. Our students are going to excel.”
Green acknowledged that the social and emotional aspects of child development are important. She’s concerned about her own children who have gone through Barnegat schools. “I don’t want my daughter to take out college loans for non-credit classes because she wasn’t prepared.”
Other parents questioned whether curriculum changes and “teaching to the test” were part of the problem. Jim Barbiere, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, acknowledged that decisions made by past administrations may not have been good ones. The district has changed its focus.
“Tests are a four-letter word, but not a bad one,” Barbiere said. “They serve as feedback.”
Parents who spoke out against reconfiguration expressed apprehension about a number of issues. They worried about late start times that could cause a particular inconvenience to working mothers and fathers. Others did not like the prospect of separating young siblings in different schools.
Melissa Russo, who recently moved into Barnegat, shared her personal concerns. “I have a daughter who is in Pre-K and is extremely shy,” she said. “She is hesitant on change and has the comfort of knowing her brother is right across the hall.”
As Russo continued, she said that younger grade school children have the opportunity to look up to older ones when they are in the same buildings. “It’s more than just what’s on paper. It’s also about how children resolve issues.”
“I think everyone in this room agrees that something needs to be done to help our children do better,” submitted Tracy Sutton, another parent. “I think it’s great that you want to support your teachers to help our children with collaboration with the staff.”
Sutton chastised the administration for not engaging parents in the process. “You’re telling us how it is going to be and not really asking us for our input. These are our kids and we have just as much right and say as to their education and success.”
“As a social worker, I’m worried about stability and continuity for our children to learn,” continued Sutton. “If you think this is such a great idea, I think you should put on the referendum and let the voters decide.”
Sutton’s remarks prompted another parent to speak during the public session. Lisa O’Halloran said she was initially against the grade-banding but became involved in one of the sub-committees.
“I was completely against the reconfiguration,” said O’Halloran. “I got to voice my concerns at the committee meeting.”
"You can’t say that parents weren’t heard, O’Halloran said, turning to Sutton. “Don’t say that parents didn’t get a voice. My voice was heard. As a parent, I now don’t see it as all bad.”
Latwis suggested that anyone with questions regarding the upcoming school changes send an email to ONEBarnegat@barnegatschools.com. He will also make himself available to any parents who wish to discuss their particular concerns in a private meeting.