With Pocopson Elementary at capacity, the school district looks for solutions
By John Chambless
Faced with a record enrollment of 652 students this year, Pocopson Elementary School is using every available classroom. That means some adjustments need to be made, according to Unionville-Chadds Ford School District superintendent John Sanville.
At the Sept. 8 school board work session, Sanville laid out the district's reasoning for pursuing redistricting, and a crowd of about 20 parents showed up to hear what he had to say.
'This is not a topic that this board and this administration brings up lightly,” Sanville told the audience. “We realize this is an emotional issue.”
The district is committed to maintaining its four K-5 schools, Sanville emphasized. No restructuring is being suggested. But what is needed is a realignment of school populations.
“Pocopson Elementary is full,” he said, “while other schools in the district have empty rooms. If this continues, the educatonal program at Pocopson might face changes. We are committed to providing the same quality education in all of our schools.”
Sanville outlined the district's recent history, beginning in 1998, when the board adopted the K-5 neighborhood school concept. In 2001, the current school boundary lines were adopted. In 2011, the board voted to not study configuration changes. But at this point, “We need to look at boundary line status,” Sanville said.
The school district has classroom capacity guidelines of 23 students per class in kindergarten through second grade, and 26 students per class in grades three to five, Sanville said, noting that those numbers are smaller than those suggested by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. At Pocopson, all of the 28 classrooms are fully utilized, while Unionville Elementary, for example, has four empty classrooms.
Robert Cochran, the district's director of business and operations, said, “We feel it's wiser to utilize boundary changes, rather than add trailers or start new construction at Pocopson Elementary.”
Sanville said the district's guiding principles in the redistricting will be to not use trailers at one school if there are empty classrooms in another school, to avoid splitting neighborhoods, to put in place a six-year plan so that students are not moved twice during their elementary school years, and to keep school boundaries contiguous.
Four consultant companies have been contacted to perform a formal analysis of population figures and make a recommendation for redistricting under the district's guidelines. The proposals are due to be submitted to the district office by Sept. 12, and the school board will be asked to select one firm at the Sept. 15 board meeting. Sanville said there will be extensive opportunities for public feedback, and a committee made up of parents, administrators, staff members and teachers will be consulted throughout the decision process.
“No decisions have been made,” he said. “It may be that we decide not to change anything after we vote in March.”
Hiring an outside firm to analyze the numbers could cost $15,000 to $25,000, Cochran said, depending on the number of meetings they are required to attend, and the distance they have to travel.
One thing is clear, though. Faced with a firestorm of public protest the last time they tried to study changes to the K-5 structure, the administration and board firmly maintained that no such changes are being suggested. “It is clear that the community is against changing our K-5 structure,” Sanville said. “I would not put this community, this board and our children through that kind of change.”
The advisory committee will have parent representatives from every school, Sanville said, and there will be open “community conversations,” focus groups and surveys. Everything will be posted online. “We are looking at making this a transparent process as we go forward,” he said. “And I don't think we'll have any trouble finding volunteers for this committee," he added, smiling.
During public comment, two parents told the board that, no matter what decision is reached, children will still be in the region's top-rated school district.
“We don't have underperforming schools,” Sanville said in reply. “We don't have the diversity issues that affect other districts. But that doesn't make it any less emotional, and we understand that.”
The public feedback sessions are slated this winter, and any possible changes in district boundaries would not be made until next fall at the earliest.
School board president Victor Dupuis said, “One of our guiding principles is creating the least distruption for our students. But I would say that all four schools can be prepared for some impact.”
Sanville agreed, saying “We want to minimize the number of students impacted, but it is way too early to know what the solutions are. We don't come to this point without the bottom line being the welfare of your children.”
In other business, Rick Hostetler, the supervisor of buildings and grounds, presented a timeline to the board by which MM Architects of Lancaster will examine the Unionville High School auditorium roof to find out why rain is heard so loudly in the theater. The company will present its findings, and possible solutions, to the board in November. Hostetler said that students at the high school will be invited to work alongside the company in finding a solution to the noise problem as a hands-on exercise in engineering.
During a meeting of the curriculum and educational technology committee that preceded the school board meeting, board members heard from representatives of the International Club. The club is planning a service trip to India for the summer of 2015, but they are asking the board to approve a “plan B” trip to Greece and Italy instead, if not enough students sign up for the India trip.
Board members also heard from teachers who lead trips for foreign-language students, all of whom agreed that, in addition to learning more about the language, students get a chance to be self-sufficient during the trips, which involve staying with families abroad.
The board will vote next week to approve the district's standard list of possible field trip locations, as well as the fall-back plan for the trip to Italy and Greece.
For updated information, visit www.ucfsd.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.