Going to a new school always means a big change.
Different rooms, different people, different expectations.
Eighty-five percent of Cortland’s elementary school children — and two- thirds of its teachers — will face that big change next week as the Cortland Enlarged City School District rolls out a new model: three elementary-level schools instead of five; and organized along grade centers rather than neighborhoods. The changes follow the closure of Parker and Virgil elementary schools in the spring.
Some change is relatively small — fifth-grade teacher Julie Terwilliger’s classroom moves across the hall as Randall Elementary School becomes Randall Middle School.
Other changes will be larger: Jereme Stiles’ kids will spend two hours on the bus each day riding from Virgil to Cortland and back rather than the 20 minutes when Virgil Elementary School was open.
All of it is the culmination of months of preparation, more than a year of debate, and half a decade of dwindling finances as the school district coped with both declining enrollment and rising costs to operate the five elementaries. The consolidation is expected to eventually save $1.4 million a year.
The three remaining schools: Barry Primary School with kindergarten to second grade; Smith Intermediate School with grades three and four; and Randall Middle School with grades five and six.
“I’m actually really excited about it,” Superintendent Michael Hoose said. The decision followed months of debate, and no small amount of complaint, from across the city from parents concerned about losing the neighborhood feel of a neighborhood school, to increased transportation times, more stops as families have kids in more schools.
Now it’s here. Some problems will probably crop up, Hoose said, but solutions will be sought. “The biggest bugaboo is going to be transportation,” he said.
While Hoose and his team shuffled schools and bus schedules and teachers like cards in a deck, building principals shuffled, too.
Randall Principal Jordan Ashley reorganized the entire building to cluster the fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms and the special teaching areas that both grades would use.
About the only spaces that didn’t move, he said, were the gymnasium and the cafeteria.
For the entire community — from kindergartner to parent, from teacher to administrator and bus driver — the restructuring has meant change. Major change, in many cases. Some more subtle, like uniform letterhead across the district and a new districtwide mascot.
Here are some keys areas:
Kyle Stiles, 10, will have to spend a lot more time on the bus this year after the school district’s decision to shut down Virgil Elementary. Kyle lives about a half-mile from the now-closed school and last year it would’ve taken him a 10-minute bus ride to get to it.
Now he’ll be sitting on the bus for almost an hour before he gets to Randall Middle School.
“It’s insane,” said Jereme Stiles, Kyle’s father. “They’re young and it’s tough to get the kids up early as it is.”
But what’s more concerning to Stiles is how he will keep Kyle occupied on the bus for such a long time.
“Their minds wander,” he said. “They have to stay busy.”
“The New York state Department of Education doesn’t have a maximum time for students to be on the bus,” said Kim Vile, the district business administrator.
It’s not just keeping them busy on the ride, it’s getting them up to catch the bus. Stiles said his son and 13-year-old daughter Madison play sports after school, then homework and dinner.
“That crams a lot into one night,” he said. “It’s going to be a lifestyle change for every parent.”
Kyle will get picked up around 6:40 a.m., an hour earlier than when he went to Virgil Elementary. Madison will be affected, too, albeit less so, he said.
Kindergarten through sixth grade students who live at one house, but go to different schools, will be picked up together in the morning, then the buses will rotate dropping kids off to each school.
Then in the afternoon the buses “will rotate through the schools while dropping students along the way,” the district announced in a news release.
“There will be two additional buses to pick kids up in the afternoons to get kids home sooner,” Vile said.
The routes aren’t set in asphalt, Hoose said. “Kids that were bused last year might not be bused this year,” he said. Routes may be modified in the first weeks and months as plans that looked good on paper face the reality of finding out which kids will ride the bus, and which won’t.
“Some routes may have less ridership and some routes may have more ridership than anticipated and therefore may require more stops to be adjusted from one route to another,” the district release reads. “If this occurs you will be notified.”
Parents will also need to work around the bus schedules.
“Most people’s work schedules don’t change when the school’s (schedule) changes,” Stiles said.
However, the former Virgil Elementary will have a before- and after-school care program run by the Cortland Child Development Center. The buses will stop there morning and afternoon.
“I think a lot of the parents are concerned,” Stiles said. “I’m not sure of how it’s going to pan out, but it’s going to have to because what else are they going to do at this point.”
Julie Terwilliger looked around her classroom. It’s a new one, although just across the hall. She likes it better, although she did prefer the view from her old room — overlooking the parking lot where she could spray colleagues with a squirt gun on the last day of school.
“The one missing part is I haven’t met my kids yet,” Terwilliger said this week. For most of her 20-odd years in Cortland, she saw her future fifth-grade classes grow up in the hallways around her. This year, most of her students will be coming from other schools.
The move was a bit longer for sixth-grade teacher Stephanie Oyer — she moved to Randall from Barry. “I’m excited. I’m genuinely excited,” Oyer said. “I’ve had kids knocking on my window.”
There are a lot of new faces around the school for teachers, too. “We’re stopping and introducing ourselves and saying hello,” Terwilliger said. And asking directions: Randall is a large school that’s been expanded several times over the past 91 years.
Ashley noted there are team- building exercises for the teachers as well as the students.
One of the benefits of reconfiguring the schools is that teacher collaboration is supposed to be easier — and it is, Oyer and Terwilliger said.
Last year, teacher teams met weekly, and teachers of a grade level met monthly. Now, Oyer said, the teams are the same as the grade level, and they meet two or three times a week to coordinate lessons and share ideas.
“It’s going to be good,” Terwilliger said. “It’s a big transition year, to be sure. But we’re going to rock ‘n’ roll.”
This fall, every elementary school student and teacher will be a new kid, said Jeff Craig, district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Since most elementary-level teachers and students will teach in a different school this year, in reality, all of them will be attending new schools, even if they are staying in the same place.
“It’s not just about Parker and Virgil, it’s about all of them,” Craig said. “It’s really about closing all the (elementary) schools and opening up three new schools. Everybody’s a new kid, and we’re all starting new schools together. And the same thing’s really true for the teachers, too.”
To get students ready, the school district started at the end of last school year,first showing videos of the new schools to students “’so they could get a glimpse of what the schools were like,” then hosting open houses, at which students and their parents could explore the unfamiliar environments, Craig said.
This fall, the three schools — Barry, Randall and Smith — plan variations on ice cream socials to welcome students, parents, teachers and staff, he said.
But it goes beyond that. Classes at Randall school plan a variety of team- and culture-building exercises, Ashley said.
Teachers, as they negotiated students’ classroom assignments, made sure that each student had at least one good friend in the same class, fifth-grade teacher Terwilliger said.
The other advantage of the new configuration, Oyer added, is that splitting up two kids who just can’t get along is easier when there are eight or nine sections of that class in the school than when there were just two.
Teachers have already gone full-immersion into their new schools, and that process began as early as March. Teachers began meeting in the spring, Craig said, in order to prepare for objectives and schedules for the new schools.
Junior and senior high school students will also see a new acculturation process this year. This year seventh- and ninth- grade students will start school Wednesday — a day before the other students — so they can orient themselves in their new schools.
Getting people involved
An ice cream social Wednesday at Randall Middle School offered a good start to a school year that will include many changes, said Julie Pace, treasurer of the Randall School Parent Teacher Organization.
“We held it so the kids could come in,” Pace said. “We had tour guides to show them around the school. It was a great environment. They socialized.” They also met the new principal, Jordan Ashley.
Pace said despite all of the changes, the role of the parent- teacher groups at the three schools will remain the same: get the community involved with the schools.
Activities at Randall last year included pumpkin painting and a Valentine’s Day Dance with parents and their children.
“We will get involvement in school activities,” she said. “We will get the parents involved. We will get the kids involved. We will get the teachers involved.”
“My roll is to try to get more parent involvement and more teacher involvement,” Pace added. “We want all of the parents involved. We want them to have a say in what’s going on.”
Staff reporters Shenandoah Briere and Travis Dunn, City Editor Kevin Conlon and Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.