The Liverpool school board held a special meeting last Thursday night so that the public could hear consultants’ recommendations regarding the elementary/middle school grade reconfiguration study. And the public came out in force to hear it, packing the auditorium of Chestnut Hill Middle School.
Before the presentation by Castallo and Silky Consultants, Board President Mark Lawson explained the reasons for undertaking the study.
“We’re not doing as well as we could [at the middle school level],” Lawson said. “We appointed a future planning committee two years ago, and they suggested that we could address our goals by reconfiguring middle level education.”
With the aid of an advisory committee compiled of teachers, administrators, board members and members of the community, Castallo and Silky researched the options and selected what they thought would be best for the district. They presented those results at the Sept. 25 school board meeting.
“There’s no painless way to do a reconfiguration,” Lawson said. “There are always costs. We need to determine if the costs outweigh the benefits or the other way around . Please listen to the proposal with an open mind. We can’t make a decision that will affect all the children in this district based on feelings.”
Dr. Lucy Martin of Castallo and Silky presented the group’s findings. First, the options were narrowed down to three possibilities: keeping the current configuration; moving to a K-5 elementary, 6-8 middle; or moving to a K-4 elementary, 5-8 middle. After a yearlong study, they opted for the K-5/6-8 configuration.
“It’s educationally sound,” Martin said. “We felt that three years in a building is better than two. Middle school students don’t have enough time in two years to be comfortable with their teachers and their surroundings.”
Martin noted other reasons that this configuration was considered to be educationally sound: it could promote academic rigor, provide additional support for students in need and lengthen the transition from elementary school to high school.
Martin also called the decision fiscally responsible. It was cheaper than going to a K-4/5-8 configuration, and their recommendation on how to accomplish the move — to close Liverpool Elementary and turn it into a middle school annex to accommodate more middle schoolers at Liverpool Middle — would be cheaper than building an addition onto LMS. This option would also keep the existing boundaries determining where the district’s children will attend middle school the same.
Under the recommendation, sixth graders would attend Liverpool Elementary, which would by then be a middle school annex to LMS. Seventh and eighth graders would remain at LMS. Meanwhile, Soule Road and Chestnut Hill middle schools can already accommodate sixth graders, so they would welcome them as well as seventh and eighth graders.
Martin presented suggestions for the use of the remaining space at LE: it could become a district-wide science or art center, or it could house the LEEP (Liverpool Early Education Program, a pre-K program for district residents) program. It could also be used for community events in the village.
When the time came for public comment, no one stood up to support the recommendation.
The charge was lead by former board member Terri Cook, who sent two children through LE. She presented numerous reasons why the district should keep LE open, including the large population of walkers, the high poverty rate and the low teacher-to-student ratio. She promised to submit all data she had collected to the board.
Cook also pointed out that no one wanted to see any schools close. “We don’t want you to take LE off the table and replace it with another school,” she said. “We don’t think any elementary school should be closed.”
She also read aloud the district’s mission statement: “The Liverpool Central School District will be a leader in public education by providing the best opportunities for students to achieve academic and personal excellence.” She noted that closing LE would be a direct violation of that mission.
“If we are truly committed to that mission and this vision, why would we do something that is contrary to that?” she asked. “LE is working, Why would we break it?”
Many members of the audience agreed with Cook’s presentation. Several noted that they had moved to the village so that their children could walk to school.
“If you close it, you’ll be tearing the heart out of the community,” said Doug Norman, a village resident whose children attended LE.
“LE was built to be a small school,” LE parent and PTO vice president Karen Robenault said. “And I’ve heard no commitment to say that families will not be split [with kindergartners attending a new school and older kids remaining at LE].”
Others rejected the very idea of reconfiguration, questioning whether it truly was educationally sound and in the best interests of the kids in Liverpool.
“I asked my kids,” said Long Branch parent Jerry Foley. “They said they don’t want it changed. They loved sixth grade. I want my kids to learn, but I also want them to enjoy school. Kids are better off staying young.”
Foley pointed out that schools in Schenectady are going back to a K-6 configuration, citing studies that sixth graders’ academic performance improves when they are with younger kids and declines when with older ones.
Other parents cited possible discipline problems if their sixth graders were put in a school with eighth graders.
Liverpool graduate Jennifer Robinson pointed out that middle school is the hardest time a kid will likely face, given hormonal and other changes they face at that age, as well as the limited programs available at the middle school level.
“Middle school was the worst years of my life,” Robinson said. “I beg you not to prolong that.”
Lawson noted that the board will not be voting on the recommendation before its Oct. 23 meeting and may wait even longer than that.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.