Grade clustering proposal met with community upset

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On Tuesday, Nov. 12, the Bayport-Blue Point School District held the first of its bimonthly board of education meetings to present the findings of an 18-month study on enrollment trends and possible solutions to school configurations to combat the projected lower enrollment in the school district. 

With a focus on high expectations, opportunities and support, superintendent Dr. Timothy Hearney presented the findings of the study and stressed that these were only proposals and meant to be a starting point of a long conversation with community members and stakeholders.

A review of actual enrollment data confirmed that there is a significant decrease in enrollment in the near 10-year period. In 2011-2012 there were 2,470 students in the BBP School District and 2,076 students in 2019-2020. With the current data and metrics, it is projected that from 2011-2012 to 2023-2024, the school district will see 524 fewer students. This already takes into account the fact that there are 394 fewer students from 2011-2012 to the current 2019-2020 numbers. While the decline is supported by the data, the steepness of the decline has changed from the original 2017 projections. In the 2017 study, it was estimated that there would be 164 fewer students enrolled for the 2023-2024 school year, but in this study that number has been lowered to an expected 130 fewer students.

Establishing that the decline is both historically and logically predictable, Hearney went on to present the models proposed to reconfigure BBP’s three elementary schools (Academy Street, Sylvan Avenue and Blue Point) to address the lower enrollment and also maximize student services and resources. The two plans, both modeled after what is loosely referred to as the Princeton Plan, involves clustering students by grades versus geographical location. The two proposed clusterings were schools that housed all K-1, 2-3, 4-5 grades and another that had two K-3 schools and one grades 4-5 school. Hearney prefaced the findings of the study, stating, “It’s less about the money and more about the opportunities we can provide.” 

An elaborate and intricate breakdown of all the current demographics and services utilized by elementary school students in all three schools were reconfigured into the two proposed plans to see how applying the new grade clustering systems would affect overall budget, staff needs and class sizes. There were no significant savings in either alternative model in total cost, with some actually more expensive than the current configuration, and alternate start times for the schools had to be factored into the model proposals in order to offset the significant transportation costs that the grade clustering models created. In both scenarios, without an alternate start time, the transportation budget more than doubled from approximately $500,000 to over $1 million. Even with alternate start times, the transportation costs were nearly $200,000 more.

The total budget rectified, or in some cases saved money, in spite of the transportation increase by lowering the staff needed as grade clustering would require fewer sections of each grade to be opened (i.e. fewer teachers).

With over 100 community members in attendance, the crowd eagerly awaited the comments portion of the meeting. Before opening the meeting to the public, BOE president Michael Miller said, “We want BBP to stay the best school in New York State. Everyone here wants the same thing.” 

Many parents shared strong, passionate feelings and anecdotes of the benefits of the current K-5 system that expanded on strong sibling bonding and also the logistical nightmare of transporting young children to multiple schools, even with bus service available. 

Michelle Kessler, owner of a daycare in Bayport, was in the minority as a proponent of the grade clustering, offering that this could attract more young families. Wendy Closson of Bayport, as many parents did, wanted to know more about the social and emotional impact this upheaval would have on the young students and the number of transitions students would have to make going to a new school as opposed to staying in the same one from kindergarten through fifth grade. 

Hearney countered with the benefits of grade clustering, giving an example of having a speaker be able to give a presentation to the entire fifth grade as they would all be in one building, instead of the district missing out on the experience because of fifth-graders being located in three different buildings. 

Kate Powers-Berube, of Bayport, questioned how the strong parental support networks could be established when students were changing schools so abruptly, reminding the board of the significant parental involvement in BBP School District that has helped shape the success of its students. Jen McCormack, also of Bayport, asked the board if teachers, who would feel the most impact of grade clustering after the students, were surveyed for their thoughts. A group of Sylvan Avenue Elementary teachers were in the audience and had been quite animated in side discussion during the presentation, but did not choose to comment.

The full presentation and subsequent community comments will be on the BBP Board of Education’s website for review. 

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