Next year the West Islip School District needs to come up with over $6.5 million in savings according to information provided by the District Study Group (DSG).
If we close two Elementary Schools (ES) we can save up to $3.2 million. If we close an ES and a Middle School (MS) we can save up to $3.6 million. When looked at objectively, if we have to close two schools the choice is obvious, we need to
positives, there are other reasons why this move makes the most sense, which I
will get into in a moment.
To choose to close two elementary schools rather than closing a MS and an ES wouldn’t be because of space. The Long Range Planning Study recommends a 90% maximum utilization rate for schools, but let’s assume we go with the 80% the District would like to see. At that rate Udall Road MS could easily fit all of the town’s 7th and 8th graders which, going forward, are never projected to be more than 783 students combined. Udall Road has a capacity of 1,161 which, at 80%, means 929 students could be accommodated. That leaves room for 146 more. It would be problematic for Beach Street, with a 986 student capacity to accommodate the total 7th and 8th grade population at an 80% utilization rate, however, at an 85% utilization rate the school could accommodate 838 students which is also above the towns total 7th and 8th grade population. So again, space is not an issue.
So the next argument against closing a MS is that 6th graders benefit greatly by being in a MS setting. Maybe some do, but for others I am sure it can be a harrowing experience. But beyond that there is a significant amount of data which concludes that middle schools in general have significant negative effects on students, particularly 6th graders. Some of the findings show:
Moving students from elementary to middle school in the sixth grade causes a significant drop in academic achievement as well as lower test scores in relation to their peers who do not move. This drop tends to persist at least through the eighth grade.
Data suggests that it may be more difficult to teach sixth graders in a MS setting where they are the youngest students in the school due to possible negative influences of older peers.
Other data suggests attendance is worse for students who enter MS at an earlier age.
Switching schools at a younger age may have longer lasting negative effects than if the student was older when the switch happened.
For kids at the lower end of the achievement scale the decline in academic achievement resulting from moving to MS at an earlier age is much more significant. If your child is struggling in the fifth grade, moving to the MS in sixth grade may have longer term negative consequences than if they were given at least an extra year in the more attentive ES environment.
Suspension rates go up when students enter MS in the sixth grade as opposed to those who remain in ES.
Students who enter the MS in the sixth grade are twice as likely to be disciplined; and data shows that 6th graders in MS are more likely to have those discipline problems persist than 6th graders who remain in ES.
Moving sixth graders to MS has resulted in a decline of 1 to 3 percent of on-time high school graduation rates.
School should be about education and academics first. Socialization, club membership, access to sports and worrying about lockers should take a back seat to any perceived benefits from sixth grade transitional programs. Access to more non-academic school activities may actually be detrimental to a student’s achievement.
There are further negative effects on sixth graders as well, such as potentially increased exposure to drugs/ alcohol; sex; violence and bullying; which older students in a less controlled environment may expose them to.
The lack of the close supervision as provided for in an ES setting can also be detrimental to the development of these pre-adolescent kids. The exposure to older children at this age may set some kids up for situations that they are not yet emotionally equipped to deal with and gives these young kids added stress that should be avoided if possible.
In West Islip all of these negatives are in essence doubled because of the presence of two middle schools.
In fact, there has been an ongoing nationwide trend away from the MS concept altogether in which schools districts in cities such as Milwaukee, Baltimore and Philadelphia have reconfigured to the traditional K-8 structure with very good results. I am not advocating we do that here in West Islip, but the data clearly shows there are many negatives associated with moving younger sixth grade students into a MS environment.
If even one 6th grader in MS suffers as a result of their being exposed to the added pressures of MS life and we have the ability to forego that trauma by structuring our schools in a K-6 format we would be negligent to not do so. Particularly when there are many positives associated with keeping 6th graders in ES. Among them
The specialized attention they receive in ES classes where they are with one dedicated teacher for most of the day.
They get another year to mature so they are better equipped emotionally to deal with this significant transition at such a vulnerable age.
They are kept in an environment where they are the oldest, not the youngest, which can have a significantly positive effect on their self esteem and self confidence.
They are more closely supervised and therefore have less of a chance of falling prey to some of the negative influences which occur in less closely supervised MS environments, and younger kids need that attention.
Data shows that 6th graders in ES also test better and have less persistent discipline problems than those in MS do.
And, of course, the opposite of all of the negatives listed above is inherently better for those kids.
At this time of their life it is much more important that kids are emotionally ready to make such a significant transition than to give them access to a locker or to know what it is like to switch classes. We should be concerned with creating a challenging academic environment that prepares kids for the rigors of high school…and life. Concerns about non academic school activities, access to sports and clubs, etc… should take a back seat to the basic function of a school which is academics. Data shows that keeping kids in ES in the sixth grade is an all around positive and helps them to perform better as students. It would not be harmful in any sense to keep sixth graders in elementary school, in fact, they will be better off because of it.
So if space is not an issue and there is a significant amount of data that shows the benefits of keeping sixth graders in an ES setting what is left? The answer to that is something that many may not want to hear. It comes down to money. If we can provide the same, if not an even better education for our kids by closing a middle school and an elementary school, why wouldn’t we? All else being equal we have to think of economics, not politics.
Closing one MS and one ES gives us approximately $400,000 in additional savings. If we do not save that $400,000 then where do we make it up? On top of the other $2.9 million we would need to save to cover the $6.5 million deficit the District projects next year?
If we close a MS and an ES to save about $3.6 million we can make up the remaining approximately $3 million shortfall by cutting about 54 teachers (based on an average salary of $55K a year).
But if the choice is made to close two elementary schools for about $3.2 million in savings we need to get the other $400K somewhere. It could mean losing additional 8-9 teachers. Is the community prepared to do that?
Some might say to keep cutting Administration. I agree that we could probably trim that area even more, but at some point we will reach a point that further cuts become detrimental. We do need an adequate number of people to run the schools.
Or will the town be happy with the additional $400,000 worth of departments, programs and activities that need to be cut by choosing to close two elementary schools?
For example (from this year’s budget) we could cut some combination of:
$428K from security.
$140K from building repairs.
$135K from maintenance projects.
$54K from Homebound Instruction.
$90k + from Art, Music and Dance.
$177K from “Other Special Schools” like Driver’s and Adult Ed.
$241K from “Co-Curricular Activities” like the Robotics Club.
Or we can cut half of the over $950K we spend on Interscholastic Activities.
And so forth…
Will those advocating keeping both MS’s open and closing two ES’s instead be happy with the resulting increased class sizes that may result to save the extra $400K? Especially after all of these years of tax
increases the District said they needed to keep class sizes smaller?
Will the community still clamor for the impossible, i.e. smaller class sizes, lots of programs, etc… on $6.5 million less? Especially if the teachers union balks at more concessions?
What are you going to be willing to sacrifice?
These are serious questions that need to be considered.
I heard some of my neighbors speak of the emotional attachment their kids have to a particular school as a reason why we should not close it. The implication there is, “it’s better you than me.” No matter which school is closed some will feel a sense a loss, which is why emotional reactions such as that need to be kept out of this decision. As for middle school attachment, that will affect only two years worth of 7th and 8th graders until they get to High School. Every other middle school student in the future will only know the one school. We could even rename it if that would help the feeling of attachment the future students need to feel. The point is, after the closure of one MS we would have, in a couple of years time, ALL of the future 7th and 8th graders of the town feeling attachment to one school…together. No more intra-town sense of separation at that age for them, and their parents. Added to this will be a stronger academic record and a better financial picture for the town.
We need to consider three things if we close two schools:
Of the options considered which saves the most money? Because in the end this is about the District’s finances. The answer: Closing a MS and an ES.
Can we fit the students in the remaining buildings? The answer: Yes.
Will the education provided be any less than it is today? The answer: Absolutely not. The educational benefits of keeping sixth grade in the elementary schools and having one 7-8 MS outweighs those of keeping two 6-8 middle schools.
Please follow this link and sign the petition to close a MS and an ES in West Islip:
Please also read through these references used: