Commentary: Schools capacity meeting is important

As Shenandoah County’s children prepare to return to school on Sept. 8, the School Board is currently considering the capacity issues facing our schools, and considering short-term solutions that could have far-reaching impact on the education of our county’s children. Most of us are aware of the problems of overcrowding at the north and central campuses, and excess capacity in the south, but only a handful have been following the School Board’s efforts to resolve them. Parents owe it to their children to pay attention to this process and make their voices heard.

By way of introduction, we are both mothers of children in the school system, but we come from opposite ends of Shenandoah County, and we have differing ideas about solutions to the capacity issues in our schools. One of us has been among the leading advocates for construction of new schools, and the other a leading advocate for redistricting.

Differences aside, however, we both have joined the board of directors of Shenandoah County Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools (PASS), because we believe no solution is likely to succeed without the involvement of informed parents who are mobilized to advocate for their children’s education.  PASS was created to facilitate parents’ advocacy for their children’s education.

The School Board has contracted with private consultants to try to identify potential short-term solutions to these capacity issues. We believe that, while short term solutions might be necessary in the interim, our schools and our children need long-term solutions.   The private contractors have identified several potential initiatives which might be undertaken with respect to the school year that starts in September 2016. They will be holding a public meeting to collect community input at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Central High School in Woodstock. It is vitally important that parents attend this meeting.

The list of possible solutions includes the following:

Year-round schooling: This proposal would alter vacation schedules and have school facilities used year round, with smaller groups of students attending at any given time.   Students would be in staggered groups so that different groups would be on vacation at different times but still share some traditional holiday vacations.

Moving fifth graders into the middle schools and/or moving eighth graders into high schools: At the north and central campuses, the most crowded schools are at the elementary level; this would seek to re-distribute children to middle and high school. Another iteration of this option is to move fifth grade to the middle schools and change the middle school education model to a hybrid of the junior high model.

Redrawing the district boundary lines: This proposal would seek to take advantage of unused capacity at the south campus by moving certain children from the central to the south campus, and from the north to central campus.

Temporary structures: This proposal would involve locating additional temporary mobile structures (like the ones that have been at Sandy Hook Elementary for nine years) at Sandy Hook and W.W. Robinson.

Expanding class sizes: In our elementary schools, our School Board has made the decision that 23 students is the largest acceptable class size. This proposal would increase that to 24 or 25.

Reducing pre-kindergarten and kindergarten offerings: The proposal would reduce the number of pre-kindergarten classrooms at the elementary schools and cut kindergarten from a full day to a half day.

Each of these proposals has pros and cons to it. Most of these solutions would cost something, and all of them would involve some degree of disruption for our children. Parents may have very different opinions about them but it is critical that parents become engaged on these issues.

PASS itself has no position on the relative merits of these different proposals; the organization’s primary mission is to see that our schools are adequately funded. However, we insist that the only way our schools are going to get better is for parents to take ownership of their children’s education, and get involved. Our children are counting on us; we hope parents will come through on Wednesday evening.

Abby Walters, of Strasburg, and Jennifer Biller, of New Market, are, respectively, vice president and secretary of Parents’ Alliance for Strong Schools.