Published November 20. 2012 4:00AM
Preston - More than 400 residents who filled out an extensive survey about the town's schools generally are pleased with the school system and would recommend it to outside families, but are sharply divided about consolidating its two schools and adopting school uniforms.
The Board of Education's Community Relations Subcommittee recommended conducting the survey to gauge satisfaction with the school system and ideas for improving academics, school culture and communication with the public.
Superintendent John Welch presented results to the committee and the full board Monday.
Generally, respondents ranked the school system high in nearly every category, with only 1 to 4 percent saying they "strongly disagree" with statements such as whether they would recommend Preston public schools to friends moving into the area and whether the school system offers a "high quality academic program."
Welch was pleased with the expressed support by both parents and non-parents - about 160 of the 432 responses were from parents with children in the school system - but added that there are areas where school officials can improve.
The survey will be turned over to the Community Relations Subcommittee for review, and the committee could make recommendations to the full board based on the responses.
Responses to questions about planning for the future surprised Welch the most, with overwhelming opposition to raising class size to save money in the school budget, strong support for expanding the pre-kindergarten program to include all children ages 3 and 4, and a sharp split on the consolidation question.
The board of education has discussed possible consolidation of the Preston Veterans' Memorial School and the Preston Plains Middle School as current and projected enrollment decline, but has since put the issue on the "back burner," Welch said.
In a survey question on whether the district should consider consolidating to a pre-kindergarten-eighth- grade school, 42 percent of residents who are not school staff said yes, while 46 percent said no. Welch said it was not surprising that a larger majority of school staff objected to consolidation, 61 percent to 33 percent. About 56 of the school system's approximately 100 staff members answered the survey.
Other questions that would have direct financial impact on the school budget also yielded mixed results.
The numbers were stronger in opposition to larger class sizes to save money, with 90 percent of staff and 69 percent of the public opposed to increasing class sizes.
Preston now has one pre-kindergarten class limited to 15 students. Slots are filled using a lottery system each year. The survey asked if that should be expanded to include all children ages 3 and 4 in town, a move that would add staff and other costs. Yet 65 percent of non-school staff favored the expansion, while only 22 percent opposed it. Others offered no opinion.
Preston has not been considering school uniforms, but Welch said the committee wanted to put the question out there to gauge support. Responses were somewhat divided, but with a majority of non-staff, 55 percent favoring the concept and 34 percent opposing it. School staff responses were very similar, with 54 percent favoring and 38 percent opposing school uniforms.
"I'm sure this will engender some conversation," Welch said. "I would not have predicted this response."
Parents prefer electronic communication with the school system, while the general public favors more traditional methods, including newspapers, town and school newsletters and perhaps the district website.
Some responses seemed contradictory, such as a desire for students to have better access to current technology but few supporting converting to digital textbooks. An overwhelming 97 percent of parents and 89 percent of nonparents have access to the Internet at home, but more respondents, 241 to 191, filled out the survey by hand and mailed in their responses.
The firm School Perceptions conducted the survey, which cost about $5,000 including printing and mailing costs. Survey results are posted on the school system's website, www.prestonschools.org.
Preston Public Schools Community Survey
Total responses: 432
Respondents with children currently in Preston schools: 37 percent.
Sample of responses:
Top priorities, ranked 1 to 3:
Replacing aging student and staff computers: average rank 2.6.
Providing each middle school student computer access in classrooms: 2.5.
The Preston public schools offer high quality education: Strongly agree, 17 percent; Agree, 52 percent; strongly disagree, 3 percent; disagree, 6 percent.
How satisfied are you with Preston public schools? Very satisfied, 21 percent; Satisfied, 51 percent; Very dissatisfied, 1 percent; Not satisfied, 7 percent.
Would recommend Preston public schools to a friend moving to the area; Strongly agree, 31 percent; Agree, 46 percent; Strongly disagree, 2 percent; Disagree, 4 percent.