| Chris Goudreau
WILBRAHAM – Superintendent of Schools Albert Ganem Jr. announced his support for middle school unification after outlining the educational impacts for middle school students in future school years if the initiative is not approved.
Ganem said the district’s vision statement pledges to give students great opportunities and the ability to compete in a global society.
“That was our charge,” he explained. “That’s our vision. In every school you go into it’s posted. In my office, it’s posted … If we truly believe this, and I don’t think there’s anyone that could possibly say, ‘That’s not educationally the right thing to do; to have this vision.’ At this time, the right thing I can tell you is for us to be able to unify and bring these two schools together and really be able to do some healing and be able to some work and to be able to provide the highest quality of education for our students.”
Hampden and Wilbraham voters will determine the issue at each town’s respective Special Town Meeting on Oct. 24. The warrant articles call to amend the regional agreement between the two communities to allow Hampden students to attend Wilbraham Middle School (WMS).
Ganem, who spoke to residents of both towns during a forum at Minnechaug Regional High School on Oct. 18, said due to decline in enrollment the estimated attendance at WMS during the 2018-2019 school year would be 514. A total of 145 students would likely attend Thornton W. Burgess (TWB) Middle School during that time.
Both schools would utilize a junior high model instead of a middle school team model during that time as well.
At WMS, all teachers would teach multiple grade levels and reduction in staffing would take place across all departments, he noted.
TWB would also have teachers teaching multiple grade levels, 10 to 15 staff members would be part-time, and support staff such as custodians and guidance personnel would be reduced.
“We’re really moving away from that small group instruction,” Ganem said. “We know that middle school is such a sensitive year. There’s a ton of research done on that. We’re moving away from that team instruction.”
During the next school year, TWB would not offer the first part of Algebra I as a stand-alone course, eight out of 16 teachers at the school would be reduced to part-time status, a portion of the building might be closed, and the school’s estimated enrollment would likely be 159 students in grades 6 to 8.
“We’re not going to have enough students to have a full-time Algebra I class,” Ganem said. “If you only have a percentage of those kids in those grades, those students in those grades that qualify for Algebra I, we’re not going to be able to provide a teacher for five to eight kids that are going to be able to have that. Well you say, ‘That’s fine.’ But it’s not. Educationally, we want to have more kids so they can learn from each other in Algebra I.”
Grade 5 students would be moved to Green Meadows Elementary School at the start of the 2017-2018 school year, he noted.
“It’s the right educational thing to do – having that fifth grade in the elementary schools,” he asserted.
Ganem said the district’s decline in enrollment Chapter 70 funds have also “flat lined” in recent years – a trend that would likely continue.
Neil Gile, director of curriculum and instruction, said under a unified middle school plan the middle school model would remain a reality.
“Also, that allows the students to enter or be exposed to more exploratory offerings,” he added. “When we talk about the team – that would allow teachers at the grade levels, teams of five, to work together collaboratively to cross curricular thematic based learning.
WMS Principal Peter Dufresne, who previously served as TWB’s principal, said he believes the middle school model is superior to a junior high system because the social-emotional needs of students are addressed compared to a junior high structure, which only focuses on core academics.
School Committee Chair Lisa Morace said the committee has unanimously endorsed unification plans.
After the meeting, Hampden Selectman John Flynn told Reminder Publications the board had planned to also put the unification issue to a referendum vote, but the town’s attorney ruled that idea as out of order.
“It’s Monday and done,” he noted.
At the end of the meeting, Hampden Town Moderator Robert Howarth stated the town would likely take the regional amendment vote by a hand counted paper ballot.
He stressed that residents should keep comments brief or the meeting could extend to at least midnight on Oct. 24.