Merrimack Valley re-evaluates elementary school transfer requests
School board members in Merrimack Valley are working to develop a formal policy for parents who want to send their children to a different elementary school in the cooperative district in response to growing class sizes in Boscawen and Penacook.
“We can’t punish our existing children by allowing choice for whoever wants choice,” said Lorrie Carey, a board member from Boscawen, in a recent committee meeting to discuss the issue.
For years, parents have been allowed to submit requests to the board if they want to send their child to another school in the district. The board says no transfer is guaranteed, but it has never denied a request, said Chris Barry, assistant superintendent. Nearly all of the requests come from Salisbury and Webster parents asking to send their children to Penacook or Boscawen, citing after-school child care options at those schools as the reason.
But recently, the class sizes in these two schools have exceeded the district’s recommended capacity, leaving some board members, administrators and community members to worry about equal access to quality education for all students. The board recently voted to renew all 29 existing swaps but to put a moratorium on future transfers until a policy is in place, denying six requests for next year. In crafting a policy, the board will have to decide how and where to set the limit for allowing transfers into a school. There is no specific date for when the policy will be completed.
Of the 29 renewals, 26 of those students are coming from another school to Boscawen elementary, with nine out-of-town students in the fourth grade alone. In total, about 10 percent of both Salisbury and Webster’s students attend a different elementary school. The district’s class size guidelines say kindergarten through third grade shouldn’t exceed 20 students and fourth and fifth shouldn’t exceed 22. Based on projected enrollment for next year, not counting students who may move into the district this summer, Boscawen’s third grade and Penacook’s third and fourth grades will top that.
In Salisbury, each grade is well below the district’s recommended capacity. Next year’s first-grade class at Webster is the only class in the school expected to exceed capacity. Few to no students each year request to transfer in and out of Loudon, the district’s largest elementary school.
Nearly every parent lists child care as the reason for their request, Barry said. Both Penacook and Boscawen students have available transportation to the Penacook Community Center for its after-school program. The YMCA also offers a program at Boscawen and Loudon elementary schools. Webster students also have transportation to the Boscawen program, but parents still list child care in their requests.
Some board members say a formal policy is necessary because it’s unfair for taxpayers in Penacook and Boscawen to essentially subsidize education for Webster and Salisbury students while their own children sit in overcrowded classrooms. Furthermore, when the district studied consolidating Webster and Salisbury several years ago, residents made clear they did not want that.
“You’re paying taxes to keep those schools going in Webster and Salisbury, and that’s where those kids should be going,” said Will Renauld, a board member from Penacook.
The Boscawen and Penacook principals, Jeff Drouin and Linda McAllister, said smaller class sizes provide a better learning environment, and it can be a struggle for one teacher to deal with 25 students at once. Even bringing an aide into the classroom doesn’t completely alleviate the problem. As the district moves toward the more rigorous Common Core State Standards, the pressure on teachers will only increase, they said.
“Everyone would like a small class, and you’re more successful as a teacher in a small class,” McAllister said.