Let’s further explore our options
October 27, 2005
Google “school sizes” and look at the research on the advantages of small schools – not just small classrooms. Often they are key to children’s success.The drive to consolidate in the ’80s and early ’90s made for bigger schools at the same time our elementary school was built with addition plans in place. General thinking about school sizes was very different than today. Belief was quality of curriculum improved with larger schools. This is false. Research shows it takes a lot of bigness to add a little variety. It barely yields an increase in enrichment after you factor the costs (larger schools require added tiers of administration and operations.Small schools improve everything from teacher attitudes, stronger sense of student/staff efficacy, academic achievement is often superior, greater participation in extracurricular, belongingness, less truancy and later fewer dropout rates – all tie directly back to the size of a school. This is common sense. We all know public education is in trouble. How often in our country we hear, “It’s public school – what do you expect?”We must change this. Is it possible to get people to pay attention to the virtues of smallness as well as the virtues of scale? Even in our community, with our schools quite strong, we may think our school sizes are about right – and they may be at this moment, but without one more brick or one more student our elementary school has 505 children. Research shows elementary schools thrive best with 300-400 students. Many of us with preschoolers wonder what is next? We deserve to know and have input.Our need to “reclaim” or “redistribute” space is surreptitious. Adding out-of-district students did more than fill extra space and “enrich our programs” – it split our seams. It was recently acknowledged publicly by the board that this was a mistake. As in-district, tax-paying citizens we shouldn’t have been put in a position to vote for expansion (reclaim space) at the elementary school because we have 87-plus out-of-district students there and 300-plus overall. It is not fair to the out-of-district families gambling their fate, nor is it right for in-district citizens to pay for a new, bigger middle school and elementary addition for these reasons.In order to move children through the cafeteria lunch, kindergartners start at 10:30 a.m. We now have six classes at each grade level instead of the intended five, so we’ve added a sixth “special.” Specials are art, music, PE, Spanish, environmental ed and now Writing Workshop. Our children rotate through specials every sixth day. This is an example of how we are thinning some programs to meet a greater volume of children and expectations.We have endured leaks, classrooms without windows, and this year the middle school art room is in a trailer with no running water because we overenrolled choice students at the kindergarten level last year and had to kick them out. Few people realize this.We chose this community to raise and educate our families because of its resources, small town atmosphere and well rounded educational values. Many of us have given up a lot, and done without in order to stay here and raise our children. What can we expect?The CCC task force and board reached consensus that we should always have the option of rolling back out-of-district students as an insurance policy against overcrowding. When Burlingame was being discussed, our local politicians said there would be little to no impacts on our schools. We would not need to build bigger and that we could always roll back out-of-district. Now here we are. Last week, three of the five candidates said they would never roll back out-of-district.This leads to more questions. What happens if Burlingame or life’s ways bring more in-district students? Look at the projected studies, traffic in 20 years. Why do we think there will be no significant increase to our schools? Is it OK to have 300 families (not all of whom have both parents working upvalley) on the highway sometimes twice a day, adding to congestion and pollution? Will in-district taxpayers be asked yet again to pay for another new school in five years? If we demolish the old middle school and find we need more room, research shows that some districts add an extra school to their pool and then reconfigure grades at each school. For instance, one might be K-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12. With the old middle school gone, do we lose another option? More resources gobbled and tossed? Take a walk through the Red Brick and Yellow Brick. Little by little they shine and pride is being restored.A campus with 1,500 students typically would have 50 acres. We are sitting on less than 30. Proponents have said a new building would “finish” our campus, raise our property values, and attract buyers to the area. This flies in the face of, “We’re not adding children.” Since when have we had problems with property values and attracting people to the area? We may need a new middle school, but please let’s build it for the right reasons. More exploration and explanation of what our long-range plans are would be helpful. Bigger is not always better.Support 3A, which infuses money into our school that will benefit teachers and programs. 3B only pays for bricks. With state funding lacking, our community must take matters into our own hands. Let’s focus on establishing a large scale endowment fund to support AEF. The beginnings of an endowment are under way. Saturday, AEF will host a Halloween fund-raiser at the Belly Up. Please go or send a donation. If individuals and private groups support an endowment as many institutions do, this could translate into much richer programs that could exist from year to year. An endowment would create curriculum and enrichment stability in our schools more than all the building in the world will. This is a project we should all work together for.Colleen Burrows is a parent and lifelong Aspen resident who attended both public and private schools in the valley. She sat on the schools’ budget task force and audited the Class Size, Choice and Capacity Task Force.
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