Cherry Hill community members speak out against kindergarten centers, sixth grade building

In connection with the “Cherry Hill Public Schools 2020: A Clear Vision for the Future,” district officials began discussing the possibility of making two elementary schools kindergarten center and changing Rosa International Middle School into a sixth grade-only building. Some members of the community have begun speaking out against those ideas.

Cherry Hill Public Schools Superintendent Joe Meloche and assistant superintendent for business Lynn Shugars in January presented the district’s initial findings from Cherry Hill 2020: A Clear Vision for the Future. Cherry Hill 2020 is a large-scale project identifying areas for school officials to focus on both in the short- and long-term future.

In January, Meloche said full-day kindergarten and uniting the east and west side of towns were the two topics community members wanted to focus on most in the future. In the following weeks, school officials began discussing conceptual ideas for how to implement full-day kindergarten and create better unity in the township.

As winter turned into spring, school officials began talking about two ideas. The first involved changing two elementary schools into kindergarten centers to accommodate a full-day kindergarten program. The second discussed changing Rosa International Middle School into a sixth-grade-only building, allowing all sixth graders in Cherry Hill to attend the same school.

The two proposals have grabbed the attention of hundreds of community members, some of whom are voicing opposition to the plans. A new Facebook group entitled Save Rosa and Our Neighborhood Elementary Schools was formed to rally parents, and more than 100 community members came to the Cherry Hill Board of Education strategic planning committee meeting last Tuesday to speak about the proposals.

Sixth-grade center

The majority of the crowd at last Tuesday’s committee meeting came to voice their opposition to transforming Rosa International Middle School into a sixth-grade-only building.

During a presentation of the initial data from Cherry Hill Public Schools 2020 in January, Meloche said one thing survey respondents most wanted to see is greater unity between the east side of Cherry Hill and the west side.

The idea to create a sixth-grade center stemmed from this discussion. In the district’s frequently asked questions document on Cherry Hill 2020, the district talked about how sixth grade is a pivotal transitional year for kids.

“We are looking into the benefits of shepherding our sixth-grade students through this transition in an environment that brings them all together and ensures interaction that would help bridge the East/West divide in Cherry Hill,” the FAQ reads.

Initial discussions have Rosa turning into a sixth-grade center, while seventh- and eighth-grade students would continue to attend either Beck or Carusi middle schools, depending on where they live. Meloche said Rosa was pinpointed as a possible location because of its geographical proximity in the middle of town.

Currently, Rosa is an open enrollment school with students from both the east and west sides of town attending. Incoming middle school students wishing to attend Rosa must fill out an application during an open enrollment period each February. If more students apply for enrollment than the maximum allowed class size, a random lottery determines which students attend the school.

Meloche said the concept of a sixth-grade center would give all students the opportunity to join together with other students across town. Other South Jersey districts, such as Medford and Swedesboro-Woolwich, feature sixth-grade-only buildings.

The discussion of making Rosa a sixth-grade-only building drew the ire of some students, teachers and parents who have been a part of the Rosa community since it opened in 1999. More than a dozen past, present and future Rosa students spoke against the proposal.

Grace Such, a fifth-grade student at Woodcrest Elementary, will be attending Rosa beginning next fall. She talked about the difficulty of transitioning to a new school and said adding an additional transition with a sixth-grade center could be a detriment to students.

“In the middle of second grade, we moved to Cherry Hill when our home was sold because my mom wanted me to be in a great school system,” Grace said. “It was very hard to change schools in the middle of the year, leaving behind friends and my old school for a new school that I didn’t know.”

Alon Goldfinger, a senior at Cherry Hill High School East and former Rosa student, said he looked up to the older students when he was in sixth grade. A sixth-grade center would keep the students in that school from having older peers in the same building.

“I received valuable directions and advice from seventh graders and eighth graders so that I could easily navigate the halls,” Goldfinger said about his time at Rosa. “Without the seventh and eighth graders, I would be lost. A monochromic educational environment does not foster growth.”

Some who spoke expressed confusion as to why the district was making this change. Resident Ruth Anne Robbins, who had two daughters who went to Rosa, said she tried to research data on how schools districts with sixth-grade-only buildings perform, but has struggled to find anything.

“There’s not a lot of empirical data on it,” Robbins said. “It’s all K through eight or six through eight that’s happening around the country.”

“There’s no narrative cohesion,” Robbins later added about the idea. “I don’t understand what this story is. To me, the metaphor is that we’re trying to fix peanut butter by changing the way we make fruit salad.”

Meloche said assistant superintendent for K-12 Joe Campisi has visited Swedesboro-Woolwich School District to examine how its sixth-grade building operates and plans to visit Medford Township School District and Downingtown School District in the near future. Meloche added the district plans to continue gathering information on implementing a sixth-grade center and will later release a bibliography to the public.

Full-day kindergarten

While many people at last Tuesday’s committee meeting spoke about the sixth-grade center, the concept of kindergarten centers has gotten the attention of many in the community as well.

Meloche said full-day kindergarten was the most requested item in the Cherry Hill 2020 surveys. A number of issues have prevented the school district from implementing a program in the past.

The biggest issue facing the district is space. Meloche said the district cannot implement full-day kindergarten in all 12 elementary schools.

“The way we are currently configured, even if the board gave us the go-ahead for September, we could not do it,” he said.

Officials have discussed the idea of turning two of the 12 elementary schools into kindergarten centers. One center would be based on the east side of town, the other on the west side. The remaining 10 elementary schools would house students in grades one to five.

Because the full-day kindergarten discussion is in such an early stage, no specific schools have been identified as centers.

Community members have raised a number of concerns about the plan. Parent Jennifer Stever said she was one of the many who asked for full-day kindergarten when she filled out the Cherry Hill 2020 survey earlier this school year. However, she believes the district’s plan for kindergarten centers is not the best way to implement the change.

“I don’t think the solution should be to disrupt all of our elementary schools,” Stever said.

Some parents noted the implementation of kindergarten centers would require the re-districting of the other 10 elementary schools. In an email, resident and Realtor Colleen Roth noted many families choose their homes so their children can go to a specific elementary school. She said the possible redistricting could displace kids and cause more children to have to be bused to school rather than walk.

“I believe in full-day kindergarten,” Roth wrote. “Wouldn’t a better solution be to rent office buildings or acquire buildings throughout the township? They would probably be in better condition than the ones we have now.”

Some of the concerns with the kindergarten center plan are similar to that of the sixth-grade center. Parent Laurie Neary said at last Tuesday’s meeting if both the kindergarten and sixth-grade centers are eventually implemented, students who stay in Cherry Hill Public Schools from Barclay Early Childhood Center through high school would go through six buildings.

“That is a lot of change for the best of students,” Neary said. “For them to succeed, I think we’re setting them up to fail.”

Parent Beth Becker doesn’t feel the district should look at full-day kindergarten at all, saying the benefits likely won’t outweigh the costs.

“Several districts around us have full-day kindergarten — but are their students more prepared for first grade than ours?” Becker said in an email. “The parents I have talked to say that while they were hoping full-day kindergarten would mean less desk work and more hands-on and experiential work, it has meant more desk work and a minimal increase in social or enrichment learning.”

The next steps

It will be some time before any of the ideas connected with Cherry Hill 2020 become concrete proposals. At the board’s meeting on May 23, there will be a presentation on the findings from Cherry Hill 2020. Meloche said he will not be making any recommendations to the board that night.

“It’s going to be a similar foundation to the presentation we did in January,” Meloche said. “It’s going to be a summation of the visioning work we found this year.”

In June, the board of education will be tasked with creating a goal to establish a Cherry Hill 2020 strategic plan during the 2017–18 school year. Meloche does not expect the board to consider adopting any actual plan until at least early 2018.

Even with community support and board approval, it could be some time before a sixth-grade center or full-day kindergarten would be implemented. Meloche said the earliest the district could conceivably open a sixth-grade center is fall 2018, but added it would be more likely for it to open a few years later. Likewise, the earliest conceivable date the district could launch full-day kindergarten is fall 2019, but it could also happen later than that. Meloche added nothing is set in stone in regard to any of the district’s recent discussions.

In the meantime, the district plans to use the coming months to discuss some of its Cherry Hill 2020 ideas with the public. In addition to full-day kindergarten and the sixth-grade center, Meloche will talk about facilities upgrades and curricular items during the May 23 presentation. School officials are discussing the possibility of having a referendum in September 2018 to pay for some of the upgrades.

Meloche emphasized all of the discussions are in a very early stage. He said no board vote on any of the discussions is on the horizon, and some of the ideas could evolve as the community continues its discussion.

“We are not going down a singular path right now,” he said. “Right now it’s just a conceptual discussion to discuss where are we.”

Meloche wants community members to speak at public meetings and communicate with school officials. The district plans to hold numerous meeting over the next few months to continue discussing Cherry Hill 2020 items.

“We will convene community meetings,” Meloche said. “We’ll do them in schools, we’ll do them in communities. We’ll meet with staff, we’ll meet with PTAs.”

“I want people to continue to the discussion and I want them to come to us for the information,” Meloche added.

For more information on Cherry Hill Public Schools 2020: A Clear Vision for the Future, visit www.chclc.org/board-of-education/2020-vision