Declining enrollment. Rising costs. Unpredictable revenue. A desire to improve the academics.
This could be a description of the Cortland City School District, its challenges and why it is considering closing an elementary school.
But it’s not.
It’s why Gloversville Enlarged School District, a district about 150 miles northeast of Cortland, recently closed an elementary school and opened last September with a new configuration of schools for the district’s approximately 2,800 students.
And Cortland officials, as they consider a consultant’s recommendation to close an elementary school in 2019-20 as one way to address their pressing financial situation, might learn from its experiences.
Gloversville is a city in Fulton County, formerly industrial, facing challenges similar to Cortland: A stagnant population, poverty, few households with high educational attainment.
They do have their differences: Cortland has a higher median household income and a higher graduation rate than Gloversville and fewer students use a free and reduced lunch program.
What Gloversville did
The Gloversville City School District closed one of its four elementary schools and reconfigured the other into two pre-kindergarten-2nd grade elementary schools and the an intermediate school for grades three to five. At the closed school, a two-building campus, one building now houses community-based early education programs like Head Start and also BOCES special education programs. The other has yet to be re-purposed.
As a result of declining enrollment and rising costs, Gloversville school district closed one of its elementary schools last year, reconfiguring the other three, much like Cortland is considering. It did so to save a projected $850,000 annually, mostly in staffing costs through attrition, officials said.
District officials say the change created many benefits.
The Cortland district hired consultants Castallo & Silky LLC last year to study space needs with an eye toward improving education. The consultant recommended in January closing either Parker or Virgil elementary schools to save about $800,000 a year at Parker or nearly $600,000 at Virgil in staffing costs alone for each building. The district faces about $28 million in repairs over the next three years.
Castallo & Silky suggested that to save money, the district could:
• Close Virgil and keep the remaining four elementary schools as kindergarten to sixth-grade buildings.
• Close Parker and keep the remaining four schools K-6 buildings.
• Close Virgil and create a grade center configuration of K-2 at Randall and Smith schools and 3-6 at Barry and Parker.
• Close Parker and create the K-2 configuration at Smith and Virgil and 3-6 at Barry and Randall.
The board expects to make a decision on what to do April 16 to be implemented by the 2019-20 academic year.
A parent wants communication, consideration
Ryan Allyn a parent of two Parker students, said his family loves the fact it has a neighborhood school. If his third-grader, Wyatt, gets sick, Allyn, who works a few blocks away, can be there in a moment to take him home.
He and his wife don’t want to lose this. They know they might, but they want the district to help ease the transition.
“At the end of the day I understand that numbers need to line up, you have to balance the budget, but if you’re doing so then communicate the plan as best as possible and do it in a way so that parents know far in advance and can become comfortable with the situation,” Allyn said.
Knowing six months ahead of time where his children will be attend school, for example, would be much preferable to hearing a few months beforehand. Perhaps a meet-and-greet at the new school so the families can familiarize themselves with the new location.
And he wants details of the plan. too. “When that communication comes, we want specifics, not just ‘Hey, it’s all going to work out,’” Allyn said. “Where are the bus routes going to be, how are we going to do this specifically?”
The path Gloversville took
When Gloversville faced a similar situation in 2014 when district officials started eyeing the best way to deliver elementary education, ultimately deciding to close one elementary school and reconfigure the remaining three. The process took three years from planning to transition stage, said Gloversville Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction Lauri Kent and former Superintendent Michael Vanyo.
In that time, the district convened community focus groups to find ways to organize the schools in a cost-effective way and plan meet-and-greet events for families at their new schools, and even a color-coded shuttle system between buildings to reduce the confusion that comes with major change.
Because of the new configuration, Kent said teachers more easily share curriculum plans without teleconferencing.
There are also fewer interruptions of a child’s “educational experience,” said Kent, caused by moving from one location in the district to another.
This was frequently an issue before the grades were clustered in specific buildings, she said, as families may move from one location in the district to another, meaning the child changes schools. Now kids are guaranteed to stay in the same elementary school regardless of moves, and there’s just the one intermediate school.
How Cortland and Gloversville compare
Acclimating had its benefits
Cortland school board President Janet Griffiin said in an email Wednesday that it would be premature to speculate about what a transition would look like in the school district, as no decision has been made, yet.
“I can guarantee that should a school be closed, there will be much discussion about a smooth transition,” she said.
Cortland School Superintendent Michael Hoose said he is contacting other districts for advice.
In Gloversville, parents still objected and other hurdles had to be overcome in its three-year transition. Just like parents in Cortland who object to closing either Parker or Virgil elementary schools, parents in Gloversville wanted to retain their neighborhood schools.
The district created activities to foster pride in the closing school kept children with the peers and teachers they had grown close to, Kent said.
Even so, she admits, “You can’t please everyone.”
Students are introduced to all the other students in the district in the third grade, rather than sixth, when it’s easier to get along, she said.
“It’s easier to develop friendships at 8,” she said. “It’s cliquey at middle school.”
“That was a huge advantage getting all the kids in the district together by the third grade, instead of waiting to get to the sixth grade for the transition period,” said Vanyo, who became superintendent at Ichabod Crane Central School District just before the newly arranged Gloversville Enlarged School District opened.
The district also took other steps to help students acclimate. It kept classmates and teachers together, even when moving.”You saw all the teachers you knew and the kids you knew, located in a different building,” Kent said.
Easing the transition
The district planned a host of activities to celebrate the customs and traditions of the closing school, the two-building McNab-Meco campus, Vanyo said.
“Some of the teachers were students who went to that building, and they have a feeling of connection,” Kent said. “You have to go through a process to get to be OK with the decision, so we made sure we had planned activities that celebrated the traditions and then allowed the community to get together at different events.”
Transition teams helped students who were moving to new buildings. Families with children attending a new school came to transition events to meet principals, teachers and new neighbors.
Still, the process is not for the weak of heart, Vanyo said.
“You’ve got to be strong and you’ve got to have rationale and reason,” he said. “If it makes sense academically and financially, you have a better chance.”