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Despite declining enrollment, parents in Webster and Salisbury in favor of keeping their small schools

  • Teacher Nicole Hodgdon works with students Destiny Starkey (left) and Jaxson Smith in her fourth grade class at the Webster Elementary School on Thursday morning. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Teacher Nicole Hodgdon works with students, Emma Froment, Destiny Starkey, and Jaxson Smith in her fourth grade class at the Webster Elementary School on Thursday morning, October 21, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Webster Elementary School principal Stephanie Wheeler talks with student Ivan Maznek in Nicole Hodgdton’s 4th grade class at the school on Thursday, October 21, 2021. The class sizes at the school have declined over the last decade. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Webster Elementary School principal Stephanie Wheeler in her office at the school on Thursday. The class sizes at the school have declined over the last decade.

  • The Merrimack Valley school board listens to residents during a meeting at the Webster Town Hall. Eileen O’Grady / Monitor staff

  • Webster Elementary School principal Stephanie Wheeler talks with new student Kellan Stephenson in the hallway at the school on Thursday, October 21, 2021. The class sizes at the school have declined over the last decade. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/21/2021 4:31:29 PM

Small town pride and community spirit were at the forefront of conversations this week about the future of Webster and Salisbury elementary schools, as Merrimack Valley School District officials and residents discuss how to move forward amid significant enrollment declines at their smallest schools.

At listening sessions hosted by Merrimack Valley School Board members and district administrators Tuesday and Wednesday night, many residents spoke passionately about the important role that small schools play in maintaining a sense of community.

“Driving through our town, you won’t see any stoplights, you won’t see any convenience stores, but we do have our school,” said Webster resident David Nesbitt, a retired teacher. “Our school helps give us an identity, and it’s great for our kids to be able to go from K to 5 with other kids in Webster. It gives a place for parents to congregate and watch basketball games, that’s something our town desperately needs to keep us together.”

In May, the district hired the New Hampshire School Administrators Association to conduct the Small Schools Study 2.0 to assess the effectiveness of education in the towns of Webster and Salisbury. The report’s authors, Dr. Carl Ladd and Keith Burke, analyzed demographic trends, conducted interviews and surveyed the building spaces before coming up with five options the district could pursue: closing Salisbury Elementary, closing Webster Elementary, closing both schools, combining grade levels across the towns, or continuing with the current setup.

“Our reason was to ensure that students in the small schools were receiving similar academic and social opportunities as their peers in larger elementary schools,” said school board Chair Seelye Longnecker. “Subordinate to that was a due diligence effort to make sure the board is being prudent in spending and allocating taxpayer dollars.”

The School Board voted Oct. 4 to not consider any suggestions that involve closing Salisbury or Webster elementary schools.

Salisbury Elementary School has an enrollment of 59 students, while Webster Elementary School has 85. The Merrimack Valley School Districts’s first small schools study was conducted in 2011, when student enrollment was 101 in Salisbury and 119 in Webster. At the time, that report recommended keeping separate small elementary schools in each town, and recommended hiring more employees to staff them, to cut down on the need to share staff and resources between them.

Since then, the school-age population has declined in both towns, while the overall population has increased. The percentage of school-age children in Salisbury decreased from 5.9%, to 4.1% over the last 10 years, according to the Small Schools Study, and in Webster, the percentage decreased from 5.8% to 4.6%. At Salisbury Elementary, grades now range in size from eight students in third grade to 16 in second grade, according to Assistant Superintendent Randy Wormald. At Webster Elementary, grade sizes range from 11 students in third grade to 19 in second grade.

Small class sizes can be a challenge for a number of reasons. Wormald said larger classes allow for more idea-sharing and teachers can use instruction techniques like alternating between small group work and full discussions, which is hard to incorporate with a class in the single digits.

Larger classes are also less likely to experience behavior problems like cliques and bullying, Wormald said, because they offer a wider range of social opportunities.

“There’s such a thing as too big a class and such a thing as too small a class,” Wormald said. “It would be nice if we could get that sweet spot all the time.”

At the meetings, residents were asked to weigh in on two of the report’s suggestions, either keeping separate elementary schools as they are or combining like grade levels across the two towns, for example grouping third through fifth grades in Webster and kindergarten through second grade in Salisbury, and adding a Pre-K level.

While Webster residents were clear in their preference for keeping the structure the same, Salisbury residents asked more questions and many spoke about the importance of keeping an open mind and thinking creatively to find solutions. Ideas tossed out by community members at both meetings included combining grades, grouping students by subject rather than grade to create bigger class sizes, reallocating some students from Boscawen to Salisbury, trying out a community school model, focusing on individual competency-based education, incorporating retired community members and increasing experiential learning opportunities.

One benefit to combining grade levels across the towns is that the district could add a pre-K, something that could be a welcome solution to parent concerns about lack of available childcare.

But a challenge parents pointed out is transportation. Salisbury parent Kimberly Cutter said busing students to and from Webster to school every day would create a lengthy commute for her children.

“We moved here because we loved the idea of having our kids in a small community, smaller class sizes,” Cutter said. “We don’t want to lose that, but we also want what’s best for our kids socially and emotionally. My kids are already on a bus for sometimes an hour, adding more onto that is an issue for me.”

The district is organizing a volunteer committee of residents and no more than five school board members to continue brainstorming improvements for the small schools moving forward.

“I’m still looking for out-of-the-box ideas,” Longnecker said. “I want you to sign up to join us in a committee that’s going to keep digging into these kinds of ideas.”


Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.



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