Back to school for area students

Back to school for area students
Students head back to school at Beecher

And back to the drawing board for facility expansion planning

By Sheila McCreven-Helfenbein, Correspondent
Orange Bulletin August 30, 2001

While parents of students in the Bethany, Orange, Woodbridge and Amity (BOWA) districts breathe a sigh of relief and prepare to send their children back to school September 4th, the four area school districts will begin again in earnest to address the issue of growing student enrollment.

Also new this school year is a common bus schedule for all four districts that was instituted in part due to increases in student population. The starting and end times of the school day are also being adjusted as a result.

Enrollment numbers are expected to rise slightly in the next few weeks as all eligible students new to the area register and begin attending classes. But the current preliminary figures mostly show increases as expected across the board, from pre-kindergarten through grade twelve.

Amity Senior High School (ASHS) currently has 1,116 students enrolled to begin classes in grades ten, eleven and twelve. This is an increase of 46 students over the start of school last year. Amity Junior High School in Orange (AJHS-O) has 599 students, up from 591 in October of last year, and the Bethany campus (AJHS-B) estimates roughly 640 students for the start of classes, an increase of 45 over last September.

Last October a tri-town referendum seeking approval of a building project to add on to the existing senior high school in Woodbridge met with defeat at the hands of voters. The project was voted down by 91 votes in Woodbridge, 96 votes in Orange and 486 votes in Bethany. The Amity Board of Education (ABOE) responded by putting together an Ad Hoc Facility Expansion Committee (AHFEC) which spent the rest of the school year re-examining the proposal and the entire issue of school facilities for both the junior highs and the high school.

It is expected that the work of this committee will culminate in a new referendum seeking approval to construct an additional building on the high school campus and make renovations to both junior high schools. Along with this new construction, a reorganization of grades will also take place as the 9th grade moves from the two junior highs to the high school. Amity is currently the only school system in the state to send its 9th graders to school along with the 7th and 8th grades.

The ABOE expects to begin presenting details of its new proposal to townspeople sometime this fall. A referendum vote must be won before June 30, 2002 for the district's application for construction cost reimbursement from the state to remain valid. In the meantime, as enrollment at all three Amity campuses rise, portable classrooms will come into use, beginning this fall. 

08-30-2001 newspaper
08-30-2001 edition of the Orange Bulletin

At the elementary level for grades pre-k through six, Bethany Community School (BCS) projects an enrollment of 625 students for the start of classes, up from 612 in September 2000. This number is significantly over the official capacity of the school, which is 600 according to the CT State Department of Education (CSDE).

The Bethany Board of Education (BBOE) filed paperwork with the CSDE in June 2000 applying for partial state reimbursement for a proposed additional elementary school for the town of Bethany to accommodate growing enrollment. This project also went to town-wide referendum for approval last fall but was soundly rejected by Bethany taxpayers.

Currently, the BBOE's Building Committee is preparing to resubmit a plan to the town, after addressing the concerns of townspeople expressed in a survey conducted shortly after the referendum defeat. In order to stay on track for partial state reimbursement of construction costs, Bethany's project must also be approved by referendum prior to June 30th2002.

In Woodbridge, Beecher Road School enrollment is down considerably from last year at about this same time. As of mid-August, 943 students were registered at Beecher, while last year mid-August saw 984 enrolled. By mid-September last year, total enrollment had risen to 990, a net increase of six, and the school year ended this past June with a total of 997 students. But even with a similar gain this year, enrollment may be significantly under the CSDE's estimate of 980, a figure already revised downward from previous projections just this past January. 

The town of Woodbridge also filed paperwork in June of 2000 with the CSDE for construction of a new school housing grades pre-k through 2 to better accommodate increasing enrollment. The Woodbridge Board of Education's Building Study Committee, which met during the last academic year to explore alternatives to this plan to build a separate school at the request of the Board of Selectmen, will be reconvened in September to finalize a presentation by the WBOE to the Selectmen.

This study group, which will be Chaired by newly elected Board member Dr. Gary Desir, will be reconstituted as a Facility Committee, and will function as a standing committee of the WBOE. The full Board voted in June to advance the committee's recommendation to split Beecher into two separately functioning schools and to add on to the South end of the building to accommodate a forecast of larger enrollment. It remains to be seen whether the current enrollment figures will alter this plan in any way.  Any building proposal for Woodbridge must ultimately be approved by voters in a town-wide referendum prior to June 30th 2002.

In Orange, where all pre-k and kindergarten students attend one school and grades 1-6 are divided among three elementary schools, total enrollment is increasing this year. The total number of students among all four schools is now 1,329 up from 1,320 last year.  Mary L. Tracey school reports 175 kindergartners and 15 pre-k students for a total of 190. Racebrook School will see 337 students begin the school year, while Peck Place School will have 395, and Turkey Hill School will top the list with 407. 

Should population growth in the town of Orange rise sharply with the construction of the Avalon project and/or the Orange Estates development currently under consideration, the town may explore re-districting its school system to balance further increased enrollment. Since all three elementary schools are currently near or over capacity, facility expansion may also ultimately be considered.

New school hours and bus schedules
One aspect of the need to accommodate growing school population in the BOWA districts will be felt by all students next week when the new common bus schedule goes into action and various school starting times change. ASHS and both junior highs will begin classes at 7:35 Meanwhile the three elementary schools in Orange will all begin at 8:25 for the first time, and Mary L. Tracey School will begin at 8:35. Bethany Community School will begin at 8:30, 25 minutes earlier than last year. And Beecher Road School in Woodbridge will begin classes, one half hour later than last year, at 8:35. All area schools will dismiss classes at correspondingly altered times as well. 

All this scheduling change was brought about at the end of June when the four district Boards of Education voted to accept the Regional Transportation initiative proposed by Amity. Previously, in order to ensure that 9th grade junior varsity athletes could attend practice sessions at Amity High School immediately after classes let out there, these students were scheduled for study hall in the last period of each day when their sport was in season. But because enrollment at the junior highs has been mounting, school officials realized they would no longer be able to make these accommodations without adverse impact on academic schedules, and began searching for alternatives almost two years ago.

They hit upon the solution of creating a common start and end time for both junior and senior high schools in Amity and went about making arrangements. They quickly realized that in order to achieve this, the bus schedules for all area schools had to be modified, as bus sharing agreements between the BOWA districts made each school interdependent on each other's busses. Now, with the new Regional Transportation plan in place, all bus runs for area elementary schools will start after these same busses have completed their runs to the senior and junior highs. In the afternoon, busses will drop off junior and senior high schoolers before arriving at the elementary schools to begin dismissal for these younger students.

The common start and end times in the Amity system will also allow greater flexibility in the scheduling of teacher workshops, as now both junior and senior high school teachers can meet together. Start and end times that are relatively the same for all elementary schools may also benefit Bethany, Orange and Woodbridge school district teachers in any new efforts to match curriculum across the districts and improve the common core of knowledge for students coming into the Amity system in 7th grade.

Funding for the additional busses to achieve the Regional Transportation initiative was included in the Amity School Budget's transportation line item, which grew by $90,000 over previous budgets for this purpose.