Wallingford teachers turned out in force, and in #RedforEd T-shirts, to ask for a school renovation plan that puts students first.
The plan—one of six options a consulting group presented to the Wallingford Board of Education at a meeting last night—would provide long-term benefits for students. At the same time, it is the least expensive of the six plans proposed, saving tens of millions in precious taxpayer dollars.
Option 1, which teachers back, calls for maintaining and upgrading Wallingford’s six existing schools. Many of the other plans call for everything from extensive renovations to school closures and consolidations at prices up to and in excess of $117 million (compared to less than $16 million for Option 1).
Several of the consulting group’s proposals would force hundreds of middle and high school students out of their neighborhood schools and crowd them into what Wallingford Education Association (WEA) President Louis Faiella, a third-grade teacher, calls “megaschools.” The projected costs for these proposals do not factor in the additional and ongoing expense of busing students to buildings across town. Because the plans could take five years to complete, the consultants acknowledged that actual costs are expected to rise to a point that exceeds their initial projections.
Option 1 puts student first
“Wallingford teachers are passionate about their students and want what’s best for these children and their community—that is Option 1,” says Faiella. “It provides the best benefits for local public school students and town residents.”
Cyndi Frank, an English teacher at Sheehan High School and one of nearly 200 teachers who came to the BOE meeting, says, “I feel very strongly about not merging our middle schools and our high schools. We would lose some of our cherished traditions and extracurricular activities, and the teacher-student relationships we foster at our current schools would be at risk if we were suddenly at a school with 1,800 students. I know the majority of students who come through the doors at my school. I know their names. Double that, and you start to have students who fall through the cracks.”
Lisa Miller, a 16-year veteran who also teaches English at Sheehan and is the parent of a Wallingford kindergartner, says that as a graduate of Wallingford Public Schools, she wants her own child to have the same opportunities she had.
“Having my child go to a huge school isn’t one of those opportunities,” Miller says. “Class sizes currently aren’t optimal, and I’m concerned about them getting even bigger.”
Indeed, several students who spoke out at the BOE meeting echoed those concerns.
“I don’t like the idea of one big high school, the potential loss of some of our teachers, and the loss of our school spirit,” said high schooler David Sherwood.
“We would lose the long-standing tradition of our Carini Bowl, where our two high school football teams—Lyman Hall and Sheehan—play each other on Thanksgiving,” added student Brigitte Mitchell. “We would also lose our 47-year tradition of the Powder Puff games, where our two high schools’ football teams and cheerleaders switch roles, with the girls playing football and the boys cheering. Powder Puff is so fun, and it means a lot to us students.”
Classmate Jennifer Smith worries about traffic and cuts to student enrichment programs if Wallingford merges its two high schools.Louis Faiella
Lost in the shuffle
Dag Middle School math teacher Kristin Burkhardt grew up in a town with a large, single middle school. She knows what it’s like to be in an environment where students’ experience with their classmates and teachers is less personalized.
“I felt like a small fish,” she says. “Not only do some of the options being presented to Wallingford not make sense financially, but more important, they don’t make sense for our students.”
Faiella, who spoke to BOE members and to the media, notes that WEA opposes “megaschools where we lose the personal connections so important to teachers and so critical for students to excel.” He also points out that in his conversations with educators in districts with large, consolidated schools, “I have heard about their diminished connections with students and their issues with school security.”
Parents also spoke out at the BOE meeting in favor of Option 1, saying that consolidating the middle schools and high schools would result in numerous losses that are less tangible but extremely important to families and teachers.
In addition to personalized learning and the preservation of cherished traditions, many cited research linking smaller schools with lower absenteeism, better school climate, a lower incidence of school violence, higher student satisfaction, higher graduation rates, greater sports participation, and less student alienation.
“At smaller schools, teachers feel they have more of a positive impact on their students, especially as more young people present with mental health issues,” one parent noted. “It would be a shock to the system for elementary students to go to a middle school that now has 1,500 students, especially at a time of great social and emotional upheaval in their lives.”
WEA Vice President of Membership Vanessa Mather, a fifth-grade teacher at Rock Hill School, says, “I can’t see any plan that consolidates into one middle school. It’s just unprecedented in a district this size. Kids will get lost in the shuffle, and I can’t support that.”
Her seventh-grade daughter, Breanna, who would face a potential merging of the town’s two high schools agrees. “There’s too much tradition between Lyman Hall and Sheehan, and I feel bad about putting them together. I always thought I would go to Lyman Hall, and it would be difficult to go somewhere else. A lot of people feel the same way.” She also notes that merging the two high schools would limit students’ participation in certain extracurriculars. “It would be a lot harder to make the softball team, baseball team, or anything.”
Ninth-grader Kylie Findley adds, “We would have bigger classes, and they are already really big with 26 kids in some classes. I feel like we wouldn’t be getting a good enough education.”
“I would like to see our good teachers have small class sizes,” says Mike Mancino, whose three grandchildren are following his three children through Wallingford’s public schools.
“I was really shy as a student,” recalls Lyman High School Class of 1996 graduate Jeff Tillbrook, who adds, “Kids like me in bigger schools will be left behind. I have a 10-year-old and a three-year-old, and I trust Wallingford’s teachers and want to give them the best so that they can give our children their best.”
BOE members appear to share the concerns expressed by teachers, parents, and students and discussed narrowing the six options to Option 1, which teachers and taxpayers largely favor, along with hybrid options that include renovating all existing Wallingford schools to new without any closures. While the potential for consolidating the two high schools into one was not unanimously rejected, the decision to consolidate the two middle schools seems to be off the table.
The board will reconvene for further discussions at their next business meeting, Monday, December 17.
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