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Salem standardizes school day for all grades

By Kelly Catalfamo

Publication: The Day

Published April 03. 2013 4:00AM

Salem - Next year, the school day will be the same for all students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at Salem School, a result of declining enrollment and a decreased budget.

But at Monday night's Board of Education meeting, during which the schedule changes were approved, parents expressed frustration with the lack of communication.

"I don't feel like I have enough information on why this is occurring," said Denise Orsini at the meeting. "I just feel like parents aren't really being made aware of what's going on."

Several parents said they heard nothing about the changes until they received a paper in their children's take-home folders last week. The note in the Wednesday folder mentioned that the school board would be deciding between two different restructuring models but did not go into detail about the reason such changes were being considered.

At Monday's meeting, board members and administrators explained the rationale for the changes.

"I apologize that we haven't given you the information, but we're making this change very quickly," said Linda Robson, adding the long-term education planning subcommittee had only been considering the models for about a month. "Some of what is driving that is the budget."

The Board of Finance recently asked the school board to cut its budget by 1 percent. The proposed budget already included a reduction of six full-time employees but had increased largely for reasons outside the board's control, such as an increase in tuition fees for special education.

The board turned to restructuring to help decrease costs further.

Students will attend school from 8:40 a.m. to 3:25 p.m., which is the current elementary school schedule. The middle school hours, which have differed from the elementary school's for the past nine years, are currently 7:35 a.m. to 2:25 p.m.

"The split schedule costs more in terms of staff," said school board Chairman Stephen Buck. "No one intentionally left parents out, it just snowballed in a hurry."

There are also benefits to a unified schedule outside the cost savings, according to school administrators. Interim middle school Principal Suzanne Zahner and elementary school Principal Cynthia Ritchie said the changes will improve communication with staff by allowing them to hold one schoolwide staff meeting instead of two separate ones.

It will also make it easier for staff members who serve both schools, such as the speech pathologist and Spanish teacher, to respond to requests. That is currently a "balancing act" because of the split schedules, said Zahner.

Declining enrollment

The structural changes are also a response to declining enrollment in Salem School. In 2001, the school had 599 students, but the number has steadily declined to this year's 423. Robson said projections show that the school will lose an additional 30 students in the near future.

With all grades on the same schedule, the school administration hopes to train teachers to be content-specific rather than grade-specific. That way, teachers could teach their subject matter to multiple grade levels, compensating for the potentially tiny class sizes.

Also under consideration is the possibility of children in kindergarten through eighth grade riding on the same bus, a source of concern for some parents who spoke during the public comment period of the meeting.

Superintendent Joseph Onofrio said neighboring school districts of similar size - Bozrah, Franklin, Lisbon and Voluntown - bus students in kindergarten through eighth grade together.

"To be frank with you, our students are good kids," he said in response to concerns about the different maturity levels of a kindergartner and a middle schooler. "We do believe we can help some of them understand the power of being a role model and helping younger students acclimate to school."

At the end of the meeting, parents seemed to have a better understanding of the restructuring but were still unhappy about the process.

"I would ask that next time you restructure the school, you do solicit input from the community and from the staff," Salem parent Chris Bennett told the board.

Orsini said after the meeting that she was still disappointed in the level of parent involvement in the discussion. Although she had known the school was considering changes, she said she had no idea they would be voted on and implemented so soon.

She explained that parents received requests for input on changes to the schedule after snow days and that the board did an excellent job of communicating with them on that issue. She was disappointed that parents were not asked to be as involved in this decision, which she called a "big change."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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