Let me begin by hoping everyone had an enjoyable Spring Break wherever and however you celebrated it with your family.
Tomorrow marks the end of our ‘all-remote’ week following Spring Break and we will soon enter the next phase of our pandemic-challenged school year as we welcome both Columbia and GL students to Plan A. We look forward to seeing those students in school this upcoming Monday.
Let me address the focus of tonight’s meeting. Full Day Kindergarten is an incredible opportunity for our district to enhance and improve early childhood education. It is long overdue in Berkeley Heights. The challenge in front of us is how can we best implement it utilizing our existing resources.
Tonight is another step along the journey of building the best long-term academic solution (aka school structure) for ALL of our students. You will hear words like developmentally appropriate schools, providing equity programs and services for all of our students, and consistent staffing and class sizes. You won’t hear them because they are the latest buzzwords; you will hear them because they are the bedrock for building and maintaining the best, academically focused school system we can… where all students, regardless of the elementary school they attend, or the neighborhood they live in have the greatest chance to succeed each and every day.
To reiterate, this is a huge opportunity. It's a change from our existing school structure, one that will be impactful in many ways. It is significant in its benefit(s) to all of us in Berkeley Heights, and one that I and our team want to make sure is transparent and well understood so that we collectively embrace it from the onset. The success of implementing any proposed change(s) hinge on your full understanding of the recommendation and your providing input & feedback to the process.
That is the primary reason why we will have three sessions for parents and residents to ask questions and provide feedback. We will answer questions at tonight’s meeting and we will be conducting two town halls on the evenings of Wednesday, April 14th and the following Thursday, April 22nd. Additionally, we will survey the elementary school community so families can select which scenario they prefer.
In a few minutes you will hear from Dr. Varley and her administrative team about the scenarios that were considered and the recommendation of how best to implement full day kindergarten in our district.
We began with a problem statement and a set of guiding principles. We started with a clear, crisp definition of what challenge we were trying to solve… and it’s quite simply a MKM capacity issue…
Mary Kay McMillin doesn’t have the capacity to house all of the Kindergarten and 1st grade students when the district implements our comprehensive FDK in September 2021.
To guide us through the data, research and ultimately the scenarios and recommendations it was important that we outlined five guiding principles. We believe it’s critical for parents to understand these principles, as they represent the philosophy and values that guided the team and allowed us to sharpen our focus on what outcomes were important, as well as preventing the team from pursuing scenarios that weren’t in the best interest of our students.
The Guiding Principles are as follows:
- Make our schools developmentally appropriate for like-aged children and provide equitable services for all students… you are going to hear much more about these two topics this evening
- Optimize the efficiency of our resources by balancing enrollment across all elementary schools… currently our elementary schools range from an enrollment of 177 (at Woodruff) to 320 (at Mary Kay); we have the capacity, however it’s not aligned with our current enrollment
- Provide for future growth given the new housing developments… our district can comfortably handle the expected growth, however it still needs to be planned and accounted for
- Minimize the change impact, where possible, for students changing schools… a great deal of time was spent on this principle with multiple scenarios being evaluated
- Maximize, where possible, the number of children who can walk to their neighborhood school… it was encouraging to see the most recent lawn signs that say “Save Our Neighborhood Schools” because in fact that is exactly what we are doing
Our team evaluated three fundamental scenarios: 1) Do Nothing and postpone FDK another year, 2) Move 1st grade students to the existing elementary schools, and 3) Re-organize our district into two K – 2 schools and two grades 3 – 5 schools. There were many variations of each of these scenarios.
Tonight there will be a recommendation for changing our school district’s structure to have two Kindergarten through 2nd grade schools at Mary Kay McMillin and Woodruff, and two Grades 3 through 5 schools at Hughes and Mountain Park. This recommendation is backed by both experts in the field of instruction, along with best practices in the discipline of early child education. There are two implementation scenarios – one scenario is a one-year transition where all changes happen this September, and another scenario which spreads the changes over the course of two years with Full Day Kindergarten happening this September (with no redistricting) and the redistricting happening in Year 2, which is September, 2022.
Whether you wind up supporting the one or two-year transition in both cases <20% of elementary school students will be going to a different school. This fact bears repeating - - in the K – 2 and 3 – 5 going forward school structure <20% of students will experience a change in their school location. For those who believed this was a large-scale or wholesale movement of students to other schools it simply isn’t true. For those who thought we were dismantling Woodruff and sending everyone to Hughes and Mountain Park will see that exceptions have been made to minimize the transitions. For example, Rising 5th grade students at Woodruff and Hughes will have the option of remaining at those schools for their 5th grade year. For the students who are impacted by the redistricting, yes – it does represent change. However, we will work with both the students and families to make the transition as smooth as possible. However, the large majority, roughly 80% will see NO CHANGE to where they go to school today or in the future.
Similar to my comments last year about the pandemic, there is NO perfect implementation solution. "Perfection" does not exist, and the last thing that we collectively want is for perfection to stand in the way of progress. Moreover, there is no clear cut (no fully) right or wrong scenario when it comes to the timing – whether it be one year or a two year timeline.
Over the past few weeks, some members of our community have distracted from this discussion with comments about upcoming elections, superintendent’s contract renewal, Open Public Meeting law violations that require contacting the Attorney General, inaccurate claims about what was said at previous Board of Ed and Town Council meetings and finally, that the Board of Ed isn’t interested in parent feedback - - that these upcoming meetings are just part of their marketing pitch. We strongly encourage you to ignore these distractions and learn the facts and the scenarios we share with the community this evening.
The truth is quite the opposite, there will be three multi-hour sessions where parent input and feedback is not only welcomed, but encouraged. Further demonstrating the value the Board places on parent input, elementary school parents will be surveyed and have the opportunity to indicate their preferred scenario. This way both those who are vocal and the larger, more-silent majority will have an equal say in the outcome.
In closing, we have an opportunity to implement full day kindergarten, improve early childhood education with more developmentally appropriate schools, expand equity in our programs and services and do so with as minimal impact as possible.
What do we ask of you tonight and over the next three weeks? – simply listen to the presentation, ask questions to better understand the scenarios and how it might impact your child, provide feedback, and indicate your preferred scenario when asked.
Thanks for listening.