Low Chatham Kindergarten Numbers Mean Harwich Families Frozen Out

By: Tim Wood

Chatham Elementary School.

When Cary Marshall registered her daughter for kindergarten in the Monomoy School District, there was a box to check on the form for intra-district placement. Although she lives in East Harwich, her home is right on the town line, “practically in Chatham,” where she has close ties, attends church and where her daughter went to pre-school.

“We're very much a part of that community,” she said, and she wanted her daughter to attend Chatham Elementary School.

In April, however, she learned that Chatham Elementary is not accepting any intra-district choice students. She was disappointed and felt misled. School officials say the move is necessary to maintain equity in class size between Harwich and Chatham elementary schools, but Marshall said that wasn't made clear to families. She said she was told to download a school choice form and send it in, leading her to believe that the request would be considered.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter said only four Harwich families expressed interested in sending their children to kindergarten in Chatham, and all were denied in order to maintain class size balance between the two elementary schools.

For the second year in a row, Chatham Elementary School will have two kindergarten classes in September, down from three two years ago, and Harwich Elementary School will have six. The number of first grade classes in Chatham will drop from three to two in September as this year's kindergarten class moves up a grade. The surplus first grade teaching position will be eliminated; because a Chatham Elementary School teacher is retiring, no one will lose their job, Carpenter said.

“We'll redeploy that resource to add clinical resources at the middle school,” which has a large bubble of students at the fifth grade level, he said.

Demographic trends that resulted in the elimination of one kindergarten class in Chatham last fall continue, Carpenter said. As of April, 25 kindergarten students had signed up to attend Chatham Elementary School, and with choice students whose siblings are already in the Monomoy district, and allowance for last-minute sign-ups, he expects 36 kindergarten students in September. That means classes of 18 students each, roughly equal to Harwich Elementary, which will have more than 100 kindergarten students spread across six classes, or approximately 17 students per class.

In order to honor the wishes of Marshall and the three other Harwich families who wanted to send their kindergarteners to Chatham, another 13 or so students would have to make the shift. In that case, one of the Harwich kindergarten teachers would be moved to Chatham. It doesn't make economic sense to open up Chatham's kindergarten to choice students from outside the district and have to create a third class, which would require hiring a new teacher. School choice students come with $5,000 in tuition, and the revenue is not enough to cover the salary and benefits of an additional teacher, Carpenter said.

“If you're filling a classroom with school choice [students], it becomes a money-losing thing,” he said.

Before Harwich and Chatham merged into the Monomoy district, almost an entire classroom of Harwich students choiced in to Chatham Elementary, he noted. Those numbers declined after the merger as more families opted to stay in Harwich. That also meant that Harwich Elementary had to cut back on the number of choice students it allowed in, since it had “backfilled” classes to make up for the students lost to Chatham, according to Carpenter.

For a few years intra-school choice allowed the district to balance classroom numbers. Last year, when it became clear that the declining number of young children in Chatham was going to mean too few students to maintain three kindergarten classes, the district sent letters to Harwich parents asking that they consider sending their kids to Chatham, Carpenter said. That solicitation did not generate enough interest to maintain three kindergarten classes in Chatham, he said.

“School choice is becoming a bit of a balancing act,” he said.

Prior to the merger, both Harwich and Chatham were losing students in the middle school years to other districts, leading to lower numbers at the high schools. That trend has reversed, however, and the regional district is now retaining more students, Carpenter said. Keeping a “steady state” of eight classrooms at the elementary level – about 140 students per grade level, the number of next year's kindergarten and first grade classes – will eventually lead to a high school population of between 620 (this year's enrollment) and 700, the target number the regional school was built to accommodate. When this year's fifth grade – which has nearly 200 students – gets to the high school, “we're going to be pushing a full building,” Carpenter said.

Birth data and other projections don't show Chatham's student population growing beyond two classrooms, he said, which means that future second, third and four grades will shrink from three to two classes in the next few years. The district will be looking at how to redeploy the three positions that will be freed up, he said.

The regional school committee will also be looking at the future of Chatham Elementary School and whether the district will need to reconfigure its elementary grades. Ideas floated last year include redistricting so that some Harwich students will be required to attend Chatham Elementary School in order to maintain a K-4 grade facility, or making the school an early education center focusing on the younger grades. Under the current regionalization agreement between Chatham and Harwich, each town must retain its own elementary school. Any change will require approval by both towns boards of selectmen and town meeting. A proposal by the school committee to amend the agreement this past May to allow the school committee to make those changes independent of town meeting or selectmen approval was withdrawn after the Chatham Board of Selectmen declined to endorse it.

Meanwhile, Marshall attended orientation at Harwich Elementary School and said she now feels good about having her daughter attend kindergarten there. She still feels, however, that district officials could have been more open with Harwich families about their chances of sending kids to Chatham Elementary.

“I just think they could have been a bit more forthcoming,” she said.