BARNEGAT, NJ – Few would deny that the Barnegat School Districts need to make some critical changes. Fifty percent of students read below grade level. Meanwhile, only thirty-five percent of Barnegat public school children score at a proficient level in math assessments.
As it now stands, there are four elementary schools in Barnegat. Students are generally assigned by where they live, which has resulted in dramatic inequities in class size. For example, a third-grade class in one school has just thirteen students. Meanwhile, twenty-four third graders are assigned to a teacher in another Barnegat public school classroom.
Some argue that redistricting serves as the best solution to cure the imbalances. This essentially means redrawing the neighborhood lines and boundaries. However, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Latwis suggests there is another option.
Last year, Latwis introduced the concept of reconfiguration of the Barnegat School District. More specifically, this means grade banding students across the entire system. The consolidation would result in only two grade levels at each school. For example, kindergarten, first and second graders would go to the Collins School. Third and fourth graders would attend the Donahue School. PreK will have Dunfee to themselves, while fifth and sixth grade move to Horbelt.
“A master teacher or “coach” would be assigned to each of the schools,” shared Latwis. “They would essentially become the overall expert with a focus on just two grades.”
Coaches won’t have their own classes but will strictly focus on what works best for the assigned grade levels. They won’t be in a supervisory position, which also means they won’t be evaluating other teachers. In some cases, they may even go in to help co-teach a lesson when warranted.
“In education, we should be data-driven,” Latwis explained. “The reality is that teaching operates in a complete cycle, starting with lesson planning.”
Once the materials are taught, teachers assess learning and use the data to adapt lesson plans accordingly. Coaches would consistently be available to assist other colleagues throughout the process. Collaboration between teachers themselves would also help with the pace of instruction.
Currently, elementary school guidance counselors analyze the data. With the new coaches in place, the guidance counselors will be able to spend more time running group and individual sessions for different emotional issues.
“Students will be supported more because their guidance counselors will have more time to work with them,” emphasized the School Superintendent.
Latwis said that the reconfiguration would also impact everyone from the administrative team to basic skills instructors in each school. “It would be like working with a specialist rather than a general practitioner for a medical problem.”
Reportedly, a survey answered by about half of the teachers found that 85% of them who responded reacted positively to the grade banding process. The district’s administrative team, consisting of principals, vice-principals, supervisors, directors, and the business administrator, are all in favor of the proposed reconfiguration.
That said, last year, a number of parents expressed their opposition to the proposed change. Ultimately, Latwis sent out a letter saying that the district would delay a school reconfiguration plan intended for this school year.
The postponement was never intended to be indefinite. The debate regarding redistricting versus reconfiguration will soon come under consideration by Board of Education members.
At our request, the Barnegat Superintendent of Schools met with TAPintoBarnegat/Waretown Editor Stephanie Faughnan. What follows are the results of the interview in a modified question-answer format.
TAPinto: How much change would students experience in both scenarios?
Dr. Latwis Redistricting doesn't just mean redrawing the lines. It also means ensuring the schools are big enough to accommodate students. About 75% of families could see a change in schools as a result of redistricting.
Grade banding might mean a change in schools but students would stay with children they already know in their grade.
Parents have expressed student transition as a concern. Just because students don't change buildings, they do get a new teacher and new children each year. Ultimately, the four schools merge at the sixth grade level. The transition at that age is even more difficult.
TAPinto: What are the staffing cost differences as far as redistricting versus reconfiguration?
Dr. Latwis: With reconfiguration, staffing costs would be budget neutral. As far as redistricting, we could need as many as 14 new additions. With salary and benefits, this could mean more than a $1M difference. The financial impact would increase annually with raises and benefits costs.
TAPinto: What about other expenditures?
Dr. Latwis: While reconfiguration would mean adding initial expenses, they would not continue every year. For example, this cost of moving would not be a continual cost. This is the most fiscally sound way of managing things.
From a district standpoint, we only have to worry about resources for one building under the grade-banding model. We don't have to focus on having enough programs for four separate elementary schools. The common areas can be outfitted to be an amazing experience that is grade appropriate.
TAPinto: Will reconfiguration mean you'll need to put the school budget on the ballot?
Dr. Latwis: School budgets are capped at 2% without going to the voters. We actually have $975K in banked cap because of the number of years we've gone less than 2%. It's not good for an infinite number of years but it's still available. If we redistrict, we'll need to use all of that money. We don't need it for staffing for reconfiguration. I don't know if we'll need any of it for anything else if the grade-banding goes ahead.
TAPinto: What about transportation issues when families have children in multiple schools?
Dr. Latwis: We've conducted a transportation study as far as bussing. We now have a four tier model as it now exists. Redistricting would continue as it is. Under grade banding, the only difference concerns fifth graders who would become part of a different tier.
Under grade banding, one bus would pick up K-4 children and start times at the schools would be adjusted accordingly. Teachers would still ensure younger students are on the right bus. There is consideration for seat assignment.
“We’re trying to do the grade-banding is to put our kids and our staff in a position to have the most success,” Latwis said. “We also want to do so in the most fiscally responsible way that we possibly can."