Superintendent Joshua P. Starr is recommending New Hampshire Estates and Oak View elementary schools in Silver Spring remain paired following a discussion group report that offered mixed opinions on the idea of separating the schools.
Since the 1986-87 school year, the two schools have been paired so that students attend pre-kindergarten through second grade at New Hampshire Estates and third through fifth grade at Oak View. Unpairing them would have created two schools that taught from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
In his written recommendation, Starr said unpairing the schools would require constructing an addition at Oak View to accommodate the new grades that would require smaller class sizes.
Students are also better off in the current model compared to an unpaired scenario, Starr said, because they have access to more academic programs and learn in more diverse environments.
The PreK-5 Neighborhood School Initiative community coalition and the schools’ parent teacher association expressed interest in studying the schools’ potential unpairing, which helped spur Starr’s creation of the discussion group which met from March to May. The group was composed of five Parent Teacher Association members, two Montgomery Blair cluster coordinators and one community coalition member.
The coalition’s interest stemmed from its view that a pre-k through fifth-grade school is “a dominant and highly successful model to foster academic achievement and parental and community involvement,” according to Starr’s recommendation.
Starr said Oak View’s transition to a six-year school with younger grades would necessitate an addition — a roughly $9.4-million project that would fall at the end of a list of 20 school addition projects waiting for funding in the school system’s Capital Improvements Program.
“Creating the need for an additional capital project in a time of tight fiscal climate with limited funds is not a prudent strategy for the school system,” Starr said in the recommendation.
Bruce Crispell, director of the school system’s Division of Long-range Planning, said that Oak View’s capacity would decrease because the student-to-teacher ratios in some classrooms would change. With fewer students allowed in each class of the younger grades, the school would need more classrooms.
“There’s a big backlog of projects that really need to be addressed but the county funding is limited,” Crispell said.
Starr’s recommendation includes enrollment projections that show Oak View would be expected to be about 140 students over capacity in the 2014-2015 school year if it were unpaired with New Hampshire Estates. By the 2016-17 school year, Oak View would be an estimated 166 students over capacity.
According to the recommendation’s preliminary enrollment figures, New Hampshire Estates is currently 56 students over capacity and Oak View is four students over capacity. Projections under the scenario that the schools remain paired show that New Hampshire Estates is expected to be about 51 students over capacity and Oak View about 67 students over capacity by the 2017-18 school year and then remain steady for at least a couple years.
The schools were originally paired by the county school board to increase racial diversity among the student populations.
While the schools are currently both racially and ethnically diverse, Starr said, they are different when it comes to the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty and “a strong indicator for student success.”
If the schools are unpaired, New Hampshire Estates would see an increased percentage of students on free or reduced-price meals, while Oak View would see a decreased percentage, therefore widening the gap already present between the two schools.
Under the current model where students attend both schools with different FARMS rates, Starr said he thinks that “students in both schools (have) the opportunity to attend schools that are more socioeconomically diverse than the neighborhoods in which they reside.”
The PreK-5 coalition supported unpairing the schools, according to Starr’s recommendation.
In the coalition’s view, two six-year elementary schools would lead to more balance enrollment between the schools, attract non-FARMS students to the schools, and get rid of the transition to a new school that students currently go through in the third grade, among other reasons.
The PTA’s membership voted in June in favor of unpairing the schools. The cluster coordinators thought that unpairing the schools would translate to less interaction between the two schools, a loss of diversity and potential overcrowding at Oak View.
“The cluster coordinators recognize that there are scarce resources in the county and with so many other schools in the county suffering from greater overutilization and delays in capital projects, it would not be prudent to create capacity issues that currently do not exist to unpair the schools,” Starr’s recommendation said.
The school board is scheduled to hold a Nov. 7 worksession on Starr’s recommendation for the paired schools and another recommendation concerning boundaries for the new Clarksburg Cluster Elementary School.
The board will hold public hearings on Nov. 11 and 14 and is expected to take action on the recommendations Nov. 18.