Taking a deep breath on K-5 reconfig

Too many misleading reports out there right now, but timing seems confusing

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
Stop the presses!

Apparently, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board is poised to reconfigure all of the district’s elementary schools on Oct. 10, according to emails that keep running around the community like wildfire. It will mean lots of teachers getting fired, bigger classes, and untold other horrible consequences.

Well, except for this minor, little detail: it’s not true.

What the board is deciding is whether or not they should study the issue, whether they have a fiduciary responsibility to consider all of the options. Potentially, such a reconfiguration could do two things: save money, as less teachers would be needed, and, confusingly, reduce class size.

I know the idea that having less teachers and smaller class sizes seems to make no sense, but it comes from the power of numbers. Take for example some of the numbers at Hillendale. Right now, if memory serves, the fifth grade (which is very large across the district) has classes of 28, 28 and 29, above the district guideline of 26. Four classes at Hillendale would result in class sizes well below the district guidelines, so the district has to make three classes work. But if you added those fifth graders to those at one of the other schools, where maybe they have four classes of 24, now you have six classes of 26 and one of 27. In other grade levels, where the class sizes are on the small side, such compression would mean the need for less teachers, although how many, I think remains a matter of debate.

So, at least in theory, there are some arguments for looking into it. On the downside, it was pretty clear some years back that the district’s parents much prefer the neighborhood school concept, for both educational and logistical reasons. Obviously, a student who attends the same school from kindergarten through fifth grade is going to enjoy a more secure, comfortable experience, which has to impact educational quality.

Also, for parents who have more than one school-age kid, scheduling with two kids in the same school can be tough enough, with two in two schools, it can be a nightmare. One only needs to speak with the parents of kids in Pre-1st who were frequently dragged in opposite directions (not to mention the stigmatization of the students).

As it turns out, I might be one of the few district parents who’s dealt with kids under both systems. Way back in time, when Pocopson Elementary School was just a site plan disaster, instead of today’s current logistical nightmare, fourth and fifth graders went to Hillendale, with the younger kids going to Unionville and Chadds Ford. My step sons, Eddy and Greg, seemed to cope, but it wasn’t ideal.

My younger kids — fifth graders at Pocopson — seem to have benefitted from attending the same school for six years now, knowing every adult face in the building and developing a real comfort zone, which has to be a benefit to learning. Pocopson seems to have more of a community feel (and from observation, the same is true for the other three elementary schools).

I can also throw my own personal experience in, as well. Back in those crazy, wacky 1970s when every educational experiment on Earth seemed to get tossed out there and was inflicted on us Gen X kids by well-meaning Baby Boomers, I enjoyed the process of  attending three different schools in three years in fifth, sixth and seven grades. It didn’t go well.

That having been said, I’m not sure that either configuration represents either a nightmare spending scenario or an educational disaster. Switching back and forth, however, seems like a counterproductive move with less fiscal benefit than suggested.

Plus, taking up this subject a little more than a month before the school board elections is a bit like playing tennis with grenades — just weeks after settling a contentious teacher contract, an issue that seemed likely to send voters to the polls with pitchforks and torches. Thanks to this, one can see the torches again being lit, and it will impact the outcome of the November election.

That’s no more sensible than the rabid emails popping up from Hysteria Lane about some educational armageddon. My own take: the board should put this one off until the 2012-13 goals are taken up in the spring, and everyone should take a deep breath.

* * *

And they said we wouldn’t last. Today, represents our first anniversary.

A year ago, I was covering flooding and the Unionville Fair and getting a lot of “The Unionville what?” questions.

My, how time changes things. Actually, I was at the Unionville Fair yesterday and I’ve lost track how many flood stories I’ve written lately. The nice thing is how many folks come up to me at meetings and other events and talk about how much they enjoy reading The Times.

We’ve come a long way in a short period of time. In June, we launched The Kennett Times and today, we launch The Coatesville Times — while both are a work in progress, we’re pretty excited about being well on the way to creating an entirely new news source for Chester County. More sites will launch in 2012 and we hope that the umbrella site, The Chester County Times comes online in 2013, gathering up the best of local news, sports and events from our local sites.

There’s too many folks to thank for our growth, but I’d like to single out a couple.

First, my wife, Stephanie, who has been patient about my working all hours of the day (and yelling at my computer when doing Web coding). Without her support, this project never would have gotten off the ground.

Second, Hannah Christopher has been instrumental as both a sales manager and evangelist for The Times. She talked this place up when we had little in the way of content and less audience and continues to be a vital cog of our growth as we expand.

Third, our intrepid fashion columnist Kelly Hockenberry. Kelly has developed a following with her fun weekly column and brought us all kind of readers who we’d never have found. They came for Kelly, but stayed for the news and other coverage.

Finally, thanks to you, the readers. From your comments to me in person, to those you’ve left here on the site, so many have been positive and encouraging and at many times, offered good suggestions to improve The Times.

As we head into year two, we’re more excited than ever — and as the no. 1 online source of local news (that’s not my opinion, but cold, hard numbers from Alexa.com) in Southern Chester County, I can only say one more thing:

“We’ve just gotten started.”

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  1. Observing says:

    Shannon: you indicate that we should not “squander” our educational investment “by making cuts that would harm [children’s] education. On the topic of reconfiguration, how would reconfiguration “squander” this investment? I’m genuinely curious because I don’t understand the argument against it. This approach would increase the likelihood of consistent smaller class sizes and would mean that elementary school students went K-5 with half of the students with whom they matriculated to Middle School. I think the “community school” argument is a myth. There are kids going to one elementary school who are friends with kids that live across the street or 1/4 mile away that go to a different elementary school!

  2. Shannon says:

    As a parent of a Kindergarten child, and one that will be starting school in a few years, I really appreciate Mike’s input on this reconfiguration issue. My husband and I moved 3 miles up Rt. 1 with the understanding that we would be paying higher property taxes so that we could give our children the best public education that was available to them. At the time, I was proud to say that my children would be attending the UCFSD! I am extremely worried about the future state of this district and the impact it will have on my children. I also have MANY friends in the Kennett district whose children are attending the new Kindergarten center – what a nightmare!

    I am a neighbor of Kathy Do’s and I KNOW that she is so passionate, as well as informed, on all the issues affecting this school district. I truly feel that her motivation for seeking a position on the school board is to ensure that all decisions made are for the best interest of the children (our future leaders and workers!) while taking the very serious monetary issues into consideration. Any money spent on our children is an INVESTMENT in our future. We must not squander this investment by making cuts that would harm their education.

  3. Craig Huffman says:

    As the parent of several elementary school-age children, I am following this discussion closely as my family will be effected. We need to study this issue and analyze the pros and cons. I understand the benefits are cost savings and consistently lower classes sizes. I have spoken with many parents who had children going through the “split” schools in the past who thought that was a better approach because the children knew more of their classmates when the reached middle school and high school. I am concerned to see candidates such as Ms. Do taking an extreme position without the matter having been fully studied and discussed. What if our teachers and professional educators actually prefer this approach for the sake of education? We need to listen and keep an open mind before deciding anything.

  4. The studies were already done and major dollar savings were indicated as possible.

    The changes could not take place at that time do to the ‘Status Quo’ imposed by the lack of a UCFEA contract.

    It is one of the few remaining areas that could save the substantial money now needed to pay the recently promised salary and benefit increases.

    Watch your wallets when next year’s tax increases are debated.

    UCFSD continues to allocate larger percentages of their total budget to personnel costs leaving less and less for programs and facilities.

  5. Sandy Beach says:

    As I understand the district goal, it is the utilization of the K-5 buildings. A K-5 reconfiguration is one option. There could be others. In any event, I hope the district and School Board members will invite input from parents and staff who spent 3 long years studying the pros and cons of a K-3 and 4-5 model vs. K-5 neighborhood schools. An incredible amount of research and many hours of discussion resulted in the decision to reconfigure our elementary schools to a K-5 model. Sometimes it is wise to know the history of a topic or previous decision before and during new studies and discussions.

  6. Kate says:

    Mike, congratulations on your one year anniversary. I truly appreciate having a local news source like the UT (as I call it), and I really applaud your even-handed, fact-based approach to reporting the news. Thanks for all your hard work in making this newspaper such an asset to the community.

  7. Keith Knauss says:

    It’s unfortunate that Ms. Do, a candidate for the school board, has already decided to “oppose the reconfiguration” with minimal information. Before taking a position for or against an initiative, school directors usually like to have a comprehensive understanding of the issues including a detailed study by the administration and input from all stakeholders. This is the process that was followed for the transportation outsourcing decision, the activity fees decision and the superintendent selection process, among others.
    Before I take a position on this issue I’ll want a complete list of the advantages and disadvantages along with input from the teachers, administrators and elementary school parents. It will take months. Keep in mind that the estimated savings from reconfiguration could provide funding for an elementary foreign language program, two way kindergarten transportation, an expanded middle school science program and additional advanced placement courses at the high school. This is why I’d shy away from telling parents, as Ms. Do has done, that reconfiguration will “diminish the reputation of our schools and, in time, reduce the value of our homes”. It might be quite the opposite. Let’s keep an open mind until all the information is gathered.

    • Not surprisingly, Mr. Knauss sees any ‘savings’ from reconfiguration as bounty to be spent on other things rather than money that can keep property taxes from rising more than necessary.

      What ever happened to the man who ran for school director as a fiscal conservative?

  8. Kristin Hoover says:

    Congratulations on the first year for the Unionville Times! I think it has been a valuable resource in this community. Mike does a good job as a writer and an editor. He is hardworking and fair. I appreciate the coverage of the local meetings. This has to be a labor of love because the passion and enthusiasm show.

    He deserves a lot of credit for his coverage of the Teacher Contract negotiations and for helping to quell rumors that have been circulating about K-5 realignment.

    Great work, Mike!

  9. Kathy Do says:

    Mike – Thanks for another good analysis! My email box has been overflowing with messages from parents—some in a panic—about the K-5 reconfiguration issue. And I’ve been saying exactly the same thing: Slow down, take a breath. Nothing is going to happen over night. I admire the way Superintendent John Sanville is handling this issue with complete transparency. Those of us who oppose the reconfiguration—because we feel the loss of community-based elementary schools will disrupt our children’s education, cause hardships to families with multiple children, diminish the reputation of our schools and, in time, reduce the value of our homes—will be given ample time to comment and express our concerns. My number one message to all parents who are worried about this issue is: Stay informed and stay involved!

  10. Things like this become necessary when you spend too much of the budget on salaries and benefits- exactly what happened in the latest contract settlement.

    There are always trade-offs requried when you give away the store to buy labor peace.

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