Palmyra BOE presents findings of Educational Impact Study to the public

The studies were commissioned to find out how to best organize the district’s middle school grades for the benefit of students.

Superintendent of Palmyra Public Schools Brian McBride attempted to offer a solution to the community’s age-old concerns regarding the structuring of the district’s middle school with Wednesday evening’s presentation of a long-awaited educational impact study.

The “Grade Reconfiguration Feasibility Study” and “Demographic Study,” which the district outsourced to Effective Education Solutions, LLC, are part of a five-year strategic plan that in part aims to solve the problem of where to put sixth, seventh and eighth graders who are split between Charles Street School and Palmyra High School due to the lack of a designated middle school building. The findings were presented by EES President David Hespe and consultant Richard Butcher at the Board of Education’s Jan. 17 public meeting.

The studies, McBride said, were commissioned to find out how to best organize the district’s middle school grades for the benefit of students. The goal going into the collection and analysis of data was to consolidate these grades on the high school campus and create a distinct middle school separate from CSS and PHS for all purposes.

“When I first arrived in the district six years ago, I was asked a really hard question: ‘Why don’t we have a middle school?’ We have a high school and an elementary school, but we have sixth grade in one building and seventh and eighth in the other,” McBride said. “Sixth grade went back and forth between a compartmentalized process, where students would stay in one classroom, to moving between classes throughout the day.”

The grade reconfiguration study, supported by a look at student demographics over the district’s history, set out to evaluate how practical creating the proposed stand-alone middle school would be, as well as to assess its financial feasibility, potential facility changes and impact on students, curriculum and staff.

“Currently, the high school building and a few rooms in the Delaware Avenue School provide the academic program and support services for students in grades seven to 12. By reconfiguring the use of those rooms, the high school building could accommodate a stand-alone middle school for grades six, seven and eight students,” Butcher and Hespe reported. “A stand-alone high school for grades nine to 12 could also be provided by this building, in combination with the continued use of some rooms in the Delaware Avenue School.”

Butcher and Hespe noted some minor facility changes would be required and ultimately concluded the social, educational and emotional benefits of the proposed stand-alone middle school would outweigh the few minor issues identified in review of the data. The report also found six special needs students could be brought back to the district with the creation of a middle school on the PHS campus, which would reduce expenditures overall.

But some parents, teachers and board members found holes in the plan, taking to the podium to voice their concerns about the commingling of older students with sixth graders, use of facilities and time that could be wasted switching between classes under the new structure.

Butcher said while it’s impossible to predict whether there will be future incidents between older and younger students, the data does not suggest that commingling is not so significant that it poses a danger to students or their ability to learn.

“If you use a staggered schedule, that helps a lot, but obviously you can’t avoid after-school issues completely, so proper staffing needs to be put in place to solve that,” Butcher said. “In terms of controlling commingling during the school day, this school is designed beautifully to come up with a plan that has middle school in the basement and high school on the first floor. The separate staircases allow for this.”

Board member Tonya Washington wanted to know why the study didn’t look into Delaware Avenue School for placement of grades six through eight. Hespe cited lack of space as the disqualifier for use of DAS as a stand-alone middle school.

PHS English teacher Lorita Foster pointed out that under the proposed split of the high school, only 16 rooms would be available for grades nine through 12 while grades six through eight will use 17, which she observed was not taken into consideration in the study.

“It doesn’t sound feasible to me,” she said. “Also, where will the children go to the bathroom? We cannot avoid commingling, and I don’t want my sixth graders next to 12th graders in the bathroom.”

McBride addressed the public’s concerns by acknowledging that while the placement of a stand-alone middle school in the PHS building is not a perfect solution, it is the best solution according to the data.

“There are some things about the study that I also disagree with,” McBride said. “Your concerns are valid, and we will have to spend money to properly staff the schools to solve them.”

The community is invited to submit questions, comments and concerns to McBride at bmcbride@palmyra.k12.nj.us to help the district and the board reach their decision regarding the implementation of the proposal. A PDF of the studies can be found on the homepage of palmyraschools.com.