This site aims to inform and mobilize Beverly parents to take an active role in all issues related to the funding and operation of the city's schools. It was launched in the spring of 2008, when the city saw its first-ever override attempt fail, followed by the closure of a nearly-new elementary school. Subsequent years have seen further cuts that have led to larger class sizes across the district. While the opening of an impressive new high school and plans to replace the city's aging middle school give us reason to be optimistic, the school community must be ever vigilant in demanding appropriate school funding by city and state governments, and better community communications from the district and School Committee.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

This Year, Centerville Speaks for Smaller Classes

For the past several years, the public hearing on the school budget has become an annual parade of parents speaking out against the district's class size policies.  The speakers are generally from whatever class has been newly "compressed," that is, squeezed from three classes to two in order to eliminate a teacher.  Last year, it was mostly Hannah parents, who were seeing their third and fourth grade children squeezed into what they saw as excessively large classes.

This year, it was Centerville 3rd grade parents who picked up the torch, and spoke out against the administration's decision to squeeze next year's third grade into two classes with an average of 29.5 kids in a class.  The majority of tonight's speakers were Centerville parents, many echoing the exact words of previous years' speakers.

An added element to Centerville's case that many parents spoke about was the school's designation as home to the SSP program for social, behavioral, and emotional disabilities, as well as the school with the most free-and-reduced lunch students (one measure of students most at-risk).  Further, the school has failed to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) in the MCAS ratings for two straight years.  Many parents said that it is especially unfair to expect the school to meet those challenges with classes approaching 30 students in the third grade.

A few speakers also spoke about similar class size issues with Briscoe's incoming 6th grade, which is projected at 29.4. Others expressed concern over the loss of the TLC program, an intervention program for elementary students with social-emotional needs that had been funded by an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant, which runs out this year.

It should be noted that Hannah's 5th grade, which last year was compressed to two classes, also has a projected class size of 29 for next year. While no Hannah parents (including this writer) chose to speak last night, this illustrates the point of several Centerville parents who said that once a class is compressed, it is likely to remain so for the remainder of those students' elementary years.

Many speakers did commend the administration's creative approach to mitigate the large classes with full-time graduate students from the Merrimack College Fellows program, but questioned whether that was enough to offset the loss of a full-time teacher, and others wondered how much say school administrators would have in choosing the most qualified student teachers.

Prior to opening up the microphone to the audience, School Committee President Annemarie Cesa and Superintendent Marie Galinski gave an overview of the budget.  While acknowledging that there were some areas that were far from ideal, Cesa also stressed the positives, such as being able to again hold onto nearly all district programming such as four languages at the high school, which Cesa contrasted with many neighboring communities, [including, we believe, the much-heralded Hamilton-Wenham district] that have only one.

Cesa also announced that next year there will be NO students in study halls at the high school, an important milestone. And she stated that as many as 40 Beverly students who previously had choiced out or attended private schools, had recently chosen to return to Beverly schools.

Galinski presented this overview that itemized some of the key points in the budget, including key challenges, decisions, and items on a restoration list that will be reinstated if additional funds are freed up prior to the start of the school year.

If past years are any guide, it is unlikely that anything that was said tonight will have much impact on this year's budget, but the Committee will meet at least one more time to discuss the budget before it is finalized.  That meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, May 25th at 7:30 in the meeting room at Memorial.

One note on the format of these meetings: We've heard from many, especially those who take the time to speak, who find the lack of any acknowledgment or response from the Committee to be very frustrating.  As has been the case for the past several years, the members sit on the stage as the parade of parents come to the microphone. Then the night ends abruptly, with no more than a "thank-you for coming." Absolutely no response is made to any of the issues brought up.  Even direct questions to the Committee are answered with silence.

One speaker asked if it would again be only the school department that is required to make significant cuts, or if the city side would also be required to make equal cuts.  There was no answer or even acknowledgment of the question from the Committee (including the Mayor).  We'd like to know the answer to this question as well, as the final comparison of job cuts last year, clearly showed a large discrepancy between school side cuts and city side cuts.

5/12 UPDATE: Here is the Salem News report on last night's hearing.

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