There are ways to keep Seventh Street School open
Franklin (PA) News-Herald (Part 1)
Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008
By Thomas Hylton
Can the Franklin Area School District preserve its unique system of neighborhood elementary schools? I am confident it can – but it may require broadening our thinking about the means and methods of providing a quality elementary school education.
Last year, I edited and published a brochure sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, called Renovate or Replace, that encourages school districts to preserve their neighborhood schools.
The brochure contains short essays by the governor’s top cabinet officers arguing that neighborhood schools can help sustain older communities, encourage parental involvement, reduce busing costs, and foster healthy habits by making it possible for children to walk to school.
Recently, a group of parents from the Seventh Street Elementary School asked me to join their efforts to keep their school open. They photocopied and mailed me more than 50 articles and letters appearing in the News-Herald, along with test scores and feasibility studies. Clearly, these parents show an impressive dedication to their school. After reviewing this information and speaking to superintendent Ronald Paranick, I offer the following:
Seek A State Variance
At its November meeting, the Franklin Area School Board is scheduled to vote on whether to close the Seventh Street School, which houses about 120 pupils. The decision on Seventh Street is being driven by a desire to renovate the Central Elementary School. As part of the renovation, the school district is considering adding six classrooms which could house students currently attending the Seventh Street School.
The school district fears that if it does not add the six classrooms during the renovation, it will not receive a state subsidy if it decides to add them later. Although Department of Education policy calls for reimbursing renovation projects only once every 20 years, it does grant variances.
The Franklin Area School District could seek a variance to receive full subsidy for renovating Central now, but also claim its full subsidy for the six extra classrooms if it decides to build them at a later date.
The district would be acting in a responsible way. After all, Seventh Street is an outstanding school, as demonstrated by its recent Blue Ribbon Award. A variance from the state Department of Education would allow renovations at Central to proceed and give school administrators, teachers, and parents time to consider new strategies to retain all of the district’s six elementary schools.
Some people have suggested that Central, built in 1936, is too old to renovate. The belief that older buildings “wear out” is common but wrong. Building elements like doors, roofs, and mechanical systems wear out, but the foundation, floors, and walls of a well-built school should never wear out.
Ironically, school buildings constructed prior to 1940 make better candidates for renovation as “green buildings” than post-war schools. Their compact, multistory layout is more efficient to heat and cool than the sprawling one-story buildings that became fashionable in the 1950s.
Their high ceilings provide plenty of space for new wiring, ductwork, and piping. Their large window openings provide the opportunity to install energy efficient windows that capture plenty of natural daylight.
About half of Central’s students are within walking distance of the school. Walking to school helps young people develop healthy habits and enjoy fresh air.
Central is a cornerstone of the community. Closing it would make things worse, not better.
There is an abundance of academic literature showing that small schools provide a superior educational environment. For example, a year-long study of 50 Vermont elementary schools with fewer than 100 students concluded:
* Students in small schools do as well or better than students in larger schools, even though the income and educational levels of families were lower in communities with small schools.
* Small schools have higher levels of parent and community involvement than larger schools.
* Schools with fewer than 100 pupils cost 6 to 12 percent more to operate than the average Vermont elementary school.
* Large schools have dis-economies of scale that make them more expensive to operate than the average Vermont elementary school.
The study concluded: “Small schools are somewhat more expensive but add value to their communities and do well by their students.” As a result, Vermont has annually provided an extra allocation to schools with fewer than 20 students per grade level or 100 students in total. This year, 106 small schools in Vermont are sharing an extra $6 million.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania provides no subsidy for small schools. Therefore, to keep its admirable system of small schools, the Franklin Area School District may need to explore new strategies to make its small schools cost effective. Tomorrow, I will discuss one such strategy: Multi-age grouping.