The Move-a-Thon at North Elementary School had quite a few students participating in a number of activities to get them going. Pictured, Marlie Fitzgerald Hula Hoops during the after-school event in the gym. Photo by Chris Paul
Several years ago, the state funded the CTAP (Community Technical Assistant Program) studies for local towns as part of the mitigation for the Interstate 93 expansion project. But those studies were done prior to the economic slowdown of the past decade, and according to Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission Executive Director David Preece, who recently addressed the Derry Planning Board, they did not take into account “the drop in housing as a result of the recession….We assumed the growth in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000 was going to continue, and it hasn’t.”
Housing starts are coming back, but housing values are nowhere near where they were in the years immediately before the recession. And while the I-93 expansion likely will bring some population growth, assuming jobs follow, the demographics of the state’s population are changing and residents are getting older. Retirees don’t contribute children toward the need for large schools.
Combine that with the already declining enrollment in most school districts across the state, and you would expect a serious look at reducing teaching and other staff, combining classrooms, and in some cases, closing buildings, in light of the ever rising property tax.
But that rarely happens.
While school districts can’t avoid acknowledging falling enrollment, the cuts are too few to make a serious difference, and budgets continue to escalate.
We know that closing a school or redistricting students has emotional as well as fiscal components, and it should never be a quick fix or a shoot-from-the-hip response. The Timberlane Regional School District’s response to a request to lower the budget was to propose shuttering Sandown Central School, something that had not been part of the discussion that year.
The Derry Cooperative School District, on the other hand, has chosen a far better route – appointing a facilities committee to study a report the district contracted out on its buildings, and other reports done on class size. The committee will be looking at a variety of options, including reorganization, redistricting, changing the use of a facility or closing a school.
Except for Derry’s study committee, we haven’t seen any significant move to plan long term for the ongoing enrollment drop – and when Londonderry did eliminate classroom aides in its proposed budget this year, residents returned that cost at deliberative session.
Those seeking to pursue business as usual cite proposed housing developments as likely to add population.
Is that fact or wishful thinking?
Meanwhile, school budgets continue to rise, making the cost of owning a home out of reach of many of those potential newcomers – and keeping that home out of reach of many nearing or at retirement.
The high school and middle school both saw a significant reduction in the number of disciplinary incidents reported during the first semester, compared with the number reported in the first semester last year.
“We’re extremely proud our numbers continue to decrease and are the lowest they have been in eight years,” Assistant Principal Katie Sullivan told the School Board at its Tuesday, Feb. 17 meeting.
The high school had a total of 185 incidents for semester one, compared with 190 incidents in the first semester last year.
“We only had three ‘frequent fliers,’ students with five or more infractions. And 185 incidents is outstanding in our eyes,” Sullivan said, noting the school’s number of frequent fliers used to be in the 30s. “We continue to be proactive and maintain an open-door policy for students and parents.”
The high school’s frequent fliers were responsible for 11 percent of the discipline totals, and 93 percent of students at the high school did not have a disciplinary incident during the first semester, Sullivan reported.
“I commend you on these numbers. They’re certainly reflective of the culture in your building,” Vice Chairman Nancy Hendricks said. “I did notice the numbers for misuse of electronic devices has gone up. Is that due to the ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policy?”
“Those numbers are incidents where students are using computers or cell phones in academic areas when they’re not supposed to be accessing them for personal use,” Sullivan said. “The number did double, but more of our teachers are staying on top of it and writing kids up. It’s also a lot of semester one freshmen who don’t understand our rules yet. And it’s a societal thing. Everyone has to get in touch with everyone during the day.”
Sullivan said the first consequence for an infraction is a conversation, in which staff attempts to educate the student to prevent repeat behavior. The student is written up and must attend a 45-minute detention after school, with a phone call home to their parent or guardian.
A second offense merits a Saturday detention, and a third offense warrants an in-school suspension.
Member John Laferriere noted the number of incidents involving students who were in possession of and/or using drugs doubled from last year. (Related, see “Pay Now or Pay Later“)
Sullivan attributed the increase to heightened vigilance among staff.
“Of the 10 students, five were involved in one big incident where the students came to school all together. The other five were separate incidents where students were caught in possession of drugs,” Sullivan said. “We work very hard to make sure these are one-time offenses and students aren’t coming back. Staff is very vigilant and if they see anything out of the ordinary, they always report it to the administration team.”
Sullivan said phone calls to parents to report incidents involving drugs are hard to make.
“If students mess up, we’re going to catch them and support them and help the parents get through it,” she said.
While the number of drug-related incidents increased, the number of incidents involving cheating and plagiarism dropped, which Chairman Leitha Reilly said she was “happy to see.”
“We have an outstanding staff that really emphasizes that from the beginning, and emphasizes it again with every new assignment,” Sullivan said.
Also achieving a drop in the number of disciplinary incidents in the first semester was the middle school, which had a total of 129 incidents reported, compared with 233 incidents last year for the same period, with six frequent fliers who were responsible for 26 percent of the discipline totals.
“On a positive note, 91 percent of our students at Londonderry Middle School did not have a disciplinary incident during the first semester,” Assistant Principal Donna Dyer said.
The major contributing factor to the reduction in incidents was the school’s change in programming for at-risk students, according to Dyer.
“We have also really challenged staff to focus on positive behaviors rather than negative. We have a merit system and this past semester we had 160 students earn merits – that has more than tripled from last year,” she said.
The middle school didn’t have any drug or alcohol related incidents reported in the last three years.
Most of the disruptive behavior reported takes place during unstructured time in the hallways, often when students are coming back from lunch, Dyer told the Board, noting a lot of the incidents reported as disrespectful behavior are related to situations where students were being disrespectful to one another.
“I do feel we have encouraged the kids to stand up for one another, so a lot of times when an incident comes to me it has already been taken care of. I have been very impressed with that,” she said.