WESTFIELD – The Westfield School Committee spent much of 2017 formulating plans to redistrict grades K-8 in the face of rising costs, and the reality that a new elementary school building was still years away. Public meetings on the topic drew hundreds of parents and staff members in an ongoing process that will continue to dominate until the new plan takes effect in September of 2018.
JANUARY 17 – A scheduled School Committee Finance Sub-Committee meeting to discuss options for the FY18 budget drew an estimated 200 parents, district staff and officials to the auditorium of Westfield Technical Academy. The meeting resulted from an initial discussion of the district’s FY18 budget at the sub-committee meeting the prior week, when it was revealed that $2.9 million more would be needed to provide the same level of services as in FY17.
At the meeting, Kevin Sullivan, chair of the Finance Sub-Committee and members Cindy Sullivan and Ramon Diaz, Jr. were joined by Mayor Brian P. Sullivan, Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski and the entire School Committee to present seven options for the district, only one of which included keeping Russell Elementary School open.
Kevin Sullivan introduced the topic by recapping how the district arrived at this point.
“We knew 2018 was going to be a tough year because of contracts that were negotiated that will see savings – not this year, but in following years,” Sullivan said. He said the needs have not changed, and Abner Gibbs and Franklin Avenue are schools that need to be retired.
“What has changed; we’re not going to see a new school for several years. Make no mistake, we need a new school,” Sullivan said, adding, “The underlying issue is doing what is best for our students.”
FEBRUARY 15 – A joint sub-committee meeting of the School Committee was held to delve deeper into redistricting options for Westfield next year in order to close a budget gap of $2.9 million. The meeting of the Finance and Curriculum & Instruction sub-committees was held in the auditorium of Westfield Technical Academy to accommodate interested parents and staff, with 75-100 in attendance.
Kevin Sullivan, chair of Finance opened the meeting, asking Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski to start with a presentation on the four options still on the table, after eliminating three at the last meeting.
Czaporowski started with a look at current school populations, and projected enrollments for next year. Russell Elementary has the lowest enrollment of the seven elementary schools, at 187. Only the first option would keep Russell open next year, requiring redistricting of students for the other options being discussed.
After going through all the different possibilities, Czaporowski said he would like to start by asking the School Committee to eliminate the second option, which would disperse the Russell students into the six elementary schools during the 2017-2018 school year.
“It’s fair to say moving 187 students into the elementary schools is not practical,” Czaporowski said. He said that would require finding five classrooms in order to keep class sizes down, which were not available.
Czaporowski also said it was not optimal to make the changes that soon. “If we had more time to plan carefully, to take all these things into consideration,” he said, to applause from the people in attendance.
MARCH 20 – The Finance sub-committee met for the fourth time to vote on which redistricting option the School Committee would take. Mayor Brian P. Sullivan opened the meeting reporting on recent negotiations with the town of Russell, who he thanked for being willing to come down on the lease from $250,000 to $100,000 for the remaining year in the contract.
Mayor Sullivan said the School Committee had to make a decision before the April 1, 2017 date of the lease to take the remaining two 6-month options at the lowered cost.
Finance sub-committee member Ramon Diaz, Jr. told the packed audience in the City Council chambers that he gets a lot of constructive feedback from the community. “I respect and appreciate your opinions when we receive them. I really appreciate your point of view, teachers and parents alike,” Diaz said.
Diaz then made a motion to vote on Option 1 for 2017-2018, to keep Russell school open for one year only.
JUNE 6 –In anticipation of the Westfield School Committee’s expected vote on which redistricting option to pursue for the FY19 school year, a survey was sent to all stakeholders, including families with school-aged children and community members. The remaining options were to move the fifth grade to the middle schools and create two 5-8 middle schools, or one 5-6 intermediate school and one 7-8 middle school. A robo-call to the school community about the survey also went out.
“We believe that stakeholder input is a critical part of this process,” said Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski, who added that the survey was developed in a collaborative effort between the district administrative team and the new parent advisory board (made up of one parent from each school in the district as well as representatives from the Special Education Parent Advisory Council and the English Language Learner community).
The survey laid out the two options for redistricting, and asked people to choose which option they support, and what considerations should be the most important, such as costs, busing, student age considerations, and frequency of school transitions for students.
In addition to the survey, district administrators had presented the options to all staff members at both middle schools and all of the elementary schools and collected both formal and informal feedback. District administrators also met with focus groups of students in grades 4 and 5 to gather their feedback.
Czaporowski said the district would collect all the data they receive from the surveys for the June 19 decision meeting. The June 19 date was set in March when the School Committee voted to extend the lease at Russell Elementary for one more year.
JUNE 19 – Before taking the vote on which redistricting option to choose for the 2018-2019 school year, Westfield Public Schools superintendent Stefan Czaporowski shared the results of the recent survey with the School Committee. The survey was sent to all stakeholders, including families with school-aged children and community members, and asked for a vote and comments on the two remaining options for redistricting; to create a 5-6 intermediate school and 7-8 middle school, or to create two 5-8 middle schools.
There were 1,746 responses to the survey, with over 600 submitting comments. Two thirds of the respondents were parents. Overwhelmingly, at a ratio of 69% to 30%, respondents supported the option of a 5-6 intermediate school and 7-8 middle school. Another significant group, 75% cared about equity between the two middle schools.
Czaporowski said the potential savings from closing the Russell Elementary School would be $528,675. Of the two options, the 5-6 and 7-8 schools would be more costly due to the need for city-wide busing for students, potentially increasing busing costs from $603,000 to $773,000. The option of two 5-8 middle schools would not require additional costs in busing, and would potentially save the district some money.
In discussing the two options, School Committee member Ramon Diaz, Jr. said he was concerned about what happens to class sizes in the rest of the district. He also said that in the studies he’s looked at, the number of transitions that students make does affect student achievement, which drops off after each transition, especially in math and English.
Diaz said although the community is more comfortable with the 5-6, 7-8 model, he hadn’t found the data to support its advantages. “It can work both ways,” he said.
Equity between the two middle schools was one reason for School Committee member Cindy Sullivan’s support of the intermediate and middle school option. Sullivan said she’s lived on the south side of Westfield for 20 years, and said there are disparities in the two middle schools, causing a North-South division which her children were aware of when they went through middle school. She said 75% of the community expressed the wish to make the learning experience at the two schools equal. Sullivan said she was concerned about the potential of increased costs. “I feel like you have to spend money to do the right thing,” Sullivan said.
Kevin Sullivan then made a motion to recommend Option A, one 5-6 intermediate school and one 7-8 middle school, or Option B, two 5-8 middle schools for the FY19 academic year. School Committee members voted 6-1 for Option A, with Diaz dissenting.
OCTOBER 16 – A packed house of parents came to the School Committee meeting to hear the recommendations as to which schools would house the 5th and 6th grade intermediate school and 7th and 8th grade middle school.
Superintendent Czaporowski said that the Transition Committee, which is working out all of the issues of redistricting, will be giving “some sort of update” at every School Committee meeting, as well as bringing forward items for a vote. He said the Transition Committee, which is comprised of himself, parent representative Rachel Bullock, Ronald R. Rix, chief financial officer, Susan Dargie, director of curriculum, South Middle School principal Paul Newton, Paula Ceglowski, director of human resources, and School Committee member Diane Mayhew meets bi-weekly. Members of the committee are teamed up to lead sub-committees, and each of the sub-committees also has 7 to 8 members, including parent representatives.
Czaporowski said in looking at which middle school to house which grades, the committee looked first at the facilities. North Middle School was built to serve 850 6-8 grade students. South Middle School was originally built to house 1,000 7-9 grade students. SMS has more lockers, larger hallways, cafeteria and gymnasium. The results of a recent enrollment study showed that there would be more students in grades 7/8 than in grades 5/6 eight out the next nine years.
When considering the locations, the Transition Committee discovered that equal numbers of students who go to the Boys & Girls Club after school are in grades 5/6 and grades 7/8, which was a surprise to many of the committee members. Czaporowski said students would be able to walk from SMS to the Boys & Girls Club and other after school programs. He said SMS also has access to the downtown, buses and Westfield Technical Academy, offering greater opportunities for early college and career activities.
Czaporowski said that educators know when students in grades 7 and 8 continue to be involved in programs such as Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA, they are less likely to get involved in destructive activities. He then asked, “Do we want more 7/8 walkers, or 5/6 walkers?”
Czaporowski finished the presentation, by saying that the eight members of the Transition Committee were unanimous in their belief that grades 5 and 6 should go to North Middle School, and grades 7 and 8 to South Middle School. He also added that the district is also starting to combine professional development for 5th and 6th grade teachers and 7th and 8th grade teachers.
After opening the meeting to public participation, William Parks, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club was the first to speak. “We’re totally behind what they’re recommending,” Parks said. He said they currently have 50-60 students in grades 7 and 8 that walk down to the Boys & Girls Club. “We believe it is the right way to go to continue to bus students from North Middle School to the Boys & Girls Club,” he added.
School Committee member Cindy Sullivan said she had been thinking the other way, and thanked Parks for his comments which helped her see the advantage of the plan. School Committee member Diane Mayhew made a motion to have grades 5/6 at North Middle School, and 7/8 at South Middle School, which passed unanimously. Following the vote, Cindy Sullivan said both schools will be renamed.