Families explain difficulties of Dunbarton’s peculiar student situation
Emma Gagne, a student at Bow Memorial School, peeks out the window after getting into Shelley Westenberg's car after school to get a ride home to Dunbarton on Tuesday, March 18, 2014. Gagne is one of seven Dunbarton students that attend Bow schools this year and ride together to and from town. Next year, all Dunbarton students will attend Bow schools.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Bow Memorial School principal Adam Osburn, right, directs traffic in the parking lot of the school while Aidan Westenberg, front, walks out of Bow Memorial School with his friends and fellow Dunbarton residents Dillon Cate, back left, and Michael Mclean to where Aidan's mom Shelley picks them up every day on Tuesday afternoon, March 18, 2014.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Snow days at the Westenberg household in Dunbarton can be bittersweet. During the heavy storms last month, Jake, a third-grader at Dunbarton Elementary School in the Goffstown School District, got the day off. Aidan, who attends middle school in the Bow School District, had to go in for a half day.
“Bow is very much less lenient with snow days,” said the boys’ mom, Shelley Westenberg. “Goffstown cancels at the threat of weather.” The division extends to planned time off, too. Although her children’s winter vacations coincided this year, their weeks off in April will not line up.
The Westenberg kids are not only in two different schools, but in separate school districts with differing schedules and start times. Come fall, many more Dunbarton families will find themselves in a similar situation when the town’s students begin the transition from the Goffstown School District to Bow’s.
It can be a challenge for families, Westenberg said. The conflicting schedules “are the kinds of things the families have wanted to avoid who will have one kid in Goffstown and a young child in Bow.”
At last year’s town meeting, Dunbarton residents voted to approve a new AREA agreement with Bow that replaces the town’s lapsing 10-year contract with Goffstown. Under the agreement, the town will soon send students who graduate from Dunbarton Elementary School (K-6) to Bow Memorial School for grades seven and eight and Bow High School for grades nine through 12. When the agreement takes effect July 1, Dunbarton Elementary School will move into Bow’s district under Superintendent Dean Cascadden.
In an effort to ease the students’ transition, Dunbarton kids who have already started at Goffstown High School will be allowed to finish their education there and graduate. So far, only two students out of the eligible 98 have said they would prefer to go to Bow High School in the fall, said Goffstown Superintendent Brian Balke. Dunbarton students rising into seventh, eighth and ninth grades will start the coming school year at Bow.
Aidan Westenberg is a special case. He began seventh grade at Bow Memorial School this past fall, one of six Dunbarton kids who started at Bow a full year early. “They felt sort of proud to be the pioneers. They called themselves the Super Six,” said Shelley Westenberg, who serves as president of the Dunbarton Parent-Teacher Organization.
Westenberg and other parents petitioned Goffstown to allow their kids to start early at Bow, she said, to minimize the number of school transitions. If Aidan hadn’t begun at Bow this year, he would have been in the group that will attend four schools in four years: sixth grade at Dunbarton Elementary School, seventh grade at Mountain View Middle School, eighth grade at Bow Memorial School and ninth grade at Bow High School. The parents’ petition was rejected by Goffstown’s previous superintendent, Westenberg said, so the families paid tuition to Bow out of pocket.
“It’s great. All the kids made me feel welcome,” said Aidan Westenberg, after he and some of the other Dunbarton kids piled into his mom’s car, dubbed the “Bow bus,” after school yesterday. The transition was a little hard at first, he said, “but I got used to it and it’s really awesome now. . . . I like the kids and I also like the teachers a lot.”
Squished next to Aidan in the backseat, Michael Mclean transferred to Bow Memorial School halfway through the school year from Goffstown’s Mountain View Middle School. “It is definitely a big difference,” Mclean said. “There’s a lot less kids here . . . it’s kind of just easy and small because at Goffstown the school is huge, and I guess some people like it that way.”
This winter, Dunbarton students submitted enrollment information to both schools. In a few cases, families petitioned under a “best interest of the pupil” statute to keep their students who aren’t eligible in the Goffstown district.
So far, the Goffstown and Bow superintendents have received 18 requests and denied 13 and approved five.
One of those denied is Rebecca Carter’s son, who is a seventh-grader at Mountain View Middle School, where he has made friends from both Goffstown and New Boston. The Carter family wrote a letter petitioning to have both older children, the seventh-grader and his younger brother in sixth grade, go to Goffstown. “They are best buds, have a lot of the same friends and it would be a pain to have them in separate districts,” she said.
Carter received the rejection letter in early February, so both sons will attend Bow Memorial School this fall.
“It has been so up in the air for two years and that was worse, at least now we know what the deal is,” Carter said. “The oldest one in particular isn’t happy about it . . . but he will make the best of it.”
She said she doesn’t have anything against the Bow district and said as a parent it’s tough. “It felt like this decision was made for me,” she said. Carter kept her kids on Goffstown sports teams to help them get to know their future classmates. “It sort of feels like a waste,” she said. “Even though I know it’s not, it will be good for them when they have to go to Bow and assimilate again.”
For others, the transition is a welcome change. Dunbarton resident Emily Amsden is an eighth-grader at Mountain View Middle School and is looking forward to starting at Bow High School next school year. She already has some friends in Bow, where her grandparents live. “I am excited to get closer with them,” she said. “I think the options for Bow, like the academic classes you can take, will . . . help me reach my career.”
Amsden has already toured her new high school and met the guidance counselor, principal and superintendent. She said she is sad to leave her friends in Goffstown, but she said she will keep in touch. “It will be a new adventure to go to Bow.”
Cathleen Antuono will have a daughter at Dunbarton Elementary School, a daughter at Goffstown High School and a son at The Derryfield School next year. She said it won’t be such a tough change when her daughters are in separate school districts because she is used to running around. “My son is driving now, which helps. It was crazy in the beginning.”
Changes for administration
Before the bell rings on the first day, the school districts are busy making plans. A transition team has been organizing get-to-know-you activities for the Bow and Dunbarton students that include a team-building day and an ice cream social.
Transportation is a detail that still needs to be ironed out. All of the schools start at separate times and have different bus schedules. Next year the Goffstown district has committed a bus to bring Dunbarton students to the high school. The district will re-evaluate at the end of the year, and it will likely last for the remaining years Dunbarton students attend the high school, Balke said. The bus schedule for Dunbarton transport to Bow still needs to be worked through, said Cascadden.
The transition has also had consequences for Bow’s and Goffstown’s bottom lines. The loss of students in Goffstown represents an $800,000 dip in revenue next year, Balke said. In Bow, tuition revenue from Dunbarton students, and a few Hooksett students, offsets the school district’s $1.1 million spending increase in next year’s operational budget. At the annual district meeting last week, Bow voters approved the tax-neutral school district budget of $26 million. To keep the classes at a healthy size of 20 students, Cascadden said, the middle school will add two new teachers.
“We’re excited,” Cascadden said. “I think the whole community is excited.”
For Goffstown, it’s a sad loss.
“Dunbarton is a wonderful town,” Balke said. “I will be personally very sad to see them go, and I wish them the best.”
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)