DURHAM/MIDDLEFIELD — In an effort to address concerns of inequity among elementary students, the Board of Education is debating swapping school placements for the district’s elementary students.
The current proposal, which will be voted on at a Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, would temporarily place all pre-K and kindergartners at Brewster Elementary School, second- and third-graders at Lyman Elementary, and fourth- and fifth-graders at Memorial Elementary. It also comes ahead of a larger facilities project that could ultimately close two of the district’s three elementary schools.
In July, the board voted unanimously to eliminate school choice for kindergartners beginning next school year.
Parents currently have the option to place their prek-K children in either Lyman or Brewster, but have complained that students in different schools aren’t always getting the same learning experiences. The most recent complaint involved a field trip that Lyman students took to the Roger Williams Zoo, while Memorial students did not.
Board member Robert Moore noted that concerns about unequal experiences at the schools date back to 2019, when the decision was made to expand the specialized programs at Lyman Elementary School to the rest of the district. Lyman, which was originally designated a Higher Order Thinking school and followed an Integrated Day philosophy — focused on small groups, hands-on learning and arts instruction — was supposed to close, but a failed referendum prevented the district from going through with the closure.
Some families continue to argue that the district’s other elementary schools never fully adopted the philosophy at Lyman, leading to a difference in children’s educational experiences.
“It always seemed, from a perspective from some of the parents, that the programs were still acting independently of each other,” Board Chair Lindsay Dahlhemier told CT Examiner on Monday. “It’s not so much an inequity of programming, but what some parents have thought may be an inequity of experiences, which can complement curriculum. But it was important for us to listen to that.”
Dahlheimer said at a July 5 meeting that the solution was to have all students in a grade attend the same school.
“Until these kids are starting together and finishing together, my opinion is that it won’t get much better. I think we’re always going to be battling equitability between programs or curriculum or field trips or celebrations or music festivals,” she said.
Board member Maura Caramanello also said she felt all students in a school district as small as Region 13 should be having the same experiences.
But parents have expressed concerns about the potential change in grade configuration.
Jennifer Simmons, a parent of a kindergartner at Lyman Elementary, said if the change went into effect, her son would be moved every year for the next three years — from Lyman to Brewster as a first-grader, back to Lyman for second grade, and then to Memorial for third grade.
“We’re going through the evaluation process right now for special education,” Simmons told CT Examiner. “It is deeply concerning to me that my child will have to undergo all these additional transitions, and how that may impact him as he figures out how to be a learner with exceptionalities.”
Board member Lucy Petrella said she felt the benefits outweighed the costs.
“It’s a lot of transitions, we know that. This isn’t the way we wanted, but … let’s talk about what it provides. It provides that equitableness, equality in the children’s experiences and their education,” she said.
During an Aug. 29 board meeting, Superintendent Doug Schuch suggested a “phased-in” approach that would leave current Lyman kindergartners at the school next year without moving them to Brewster. He told CT Examiner he wasn’t sure how the board would feel about the plan.
“Honestly, from a staff perspective and a planning perspective, the cleanest thing to do is just to implement it at one time,” Schuch said.
Dahlheimer told CT Examiner that the board had not yet discussed the phased-in plan, but that they would consider it if the administration believed it was important.
Schuch said he’s received emails and spoken to parents who were upset about the changes.
“I think they have valid concerns and I think they need to be heard,” he said. “And … ultimately, if that will impact the decision or even the timing of the decision.”
If the district decided to adopt the new grade configurations for next year, he added, it needed to combine it with a long-term plan going forward.
“Otherwise, people could say, how do we know 10 years from now [that] this is not what we’re going to be doing?” Schuch said. “And it’s hard for anyone to guarantee the long-term option because that requires the voters to support these bond referendums. So I do think [for] the district, the board, myself, all of us — it’s a really big challenge.”
A long-term plan
After a referendum to close Lyman Elementary failed in November 2021, the board was forced to look for new ways to address the aging school facilities.
Schuch told CT Examiner that, in the spring, the board discussed transforming Memorial Elementary into a single K-5 school for the district. But he said the price — an estimated $73 million — was much higher than the board anticipated, and they decided to rethink the plan.
At the July 5 board meeting, Kim Neubig, the district’s finance director, noted that the cost of renovating Memorial was high, but the district would save about $13 million on estimated capital improvements for Brewster and Lyman.
The board decided to request estimates from other firms. During an Aug. 9 meeting, Rusty Malik, principal of the QA+M architectural firm, presented 14 possible options for the board to consider – ranging from keeping all five district schools open to closing two of the elementary schools. It also included options for transforming Coginchaug High School into a 7-12 or 8-12 grade school.
Board members ultimately chose not to consider options that would change the middle or high school. Instead, they asked QA+M to take a deeper look at several plans: One that would close Lyman and transform Brewster into a pre-K-2 school, and two that would close both Lyman and Brewster and transform Memorial into a K-5 school. The district could either renovate the current Memorial building or build an entirely new school on Memorial’s campus.
The board also asked QA+M to look at moving pre-K to the high school, where declining enrollment has resulted in unused space. Dahlheimer said this could provide career training for high schoolers who might want to work with young students, and offer space for additional classrooms if the district decided to implement universal pre-K.
Schuch told CT Examiner that the voters would eventually need to approve new construction or bonding for a new school. By asking the architects to show them different scenarios, he hoped community members would see that keeping five schools open wasn’t the best choice.
“I think the point that all of us are trying to make is … if we don’t do anything, this just gets more expensive over the years, to maintain five buildings and dilute the staff — and, even educationally, it’s not necessarily in their best interest,” Schuch said.
Dahlheimer told CT Examiner she felt the board was leaning in the direction of having a single K-5 school.
“I think when it comes down to it, it’s putting K through five in one building. That these kids, no matter what, are starting at the beginning of their educational careers, and they’re ending together. They’re moving together. There’s no question of what kids are getting versus what they’re not,” she said.
The board also decided to evaluate what they called “option 11,” which would maintain all five schools but with the new grade configurations proposed for next year, and develop a plan to make necessary building upgrades and repairs. But Dahlheimer said she didn’t anticipate this being a long-term solution.
The board is expected to vote on the grade configurations at its meeting on Wednesday.
Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.