he sound system created piercing interference and several questions went unheard by the full audience because of a dysfunctional microphone at last Wednesday’s special meeting about the merger between the Science and Discovery and Smedley Allied Health high schools, but people’s disapproval of Chester-Upland School District’s (CUSD) decision to combine the two schools was made loud and clear.
News of the merger came as a surprise to many when a CUSD letter dated July 18th was sent to parents informing them of the alteration and inviting them to one of two community meetings for discussion and a tour. Some claimed they were caught off guard and had little notice.
“Why is everything so secretive?” asked parent Christina Wilmer. She openly said parents are angry with the district because it wasn’t upfront and waited until the beginning of August to have open discussion about the decision.
The merger will shift all students and staff from Allied Health to Science and Discovery, a change that Acting Superintendent Dr. Joyce Wells is hoping will be a smooth transition.
“Why are we merging two schools that were designed to have small class sizes? When we tried to merge Chester High and (Chester) Academy (years ago), it failed, so why are we trying?” asked education advocate and Democratic candidate for school board Charlie Warren at one of the community meetings.
“I’m a Chester-Upland student and I can tell you right now what you’re doing is pretty unprofessional and pretty unorganized,” soon-to-be senior Lavar White said, speaking on behalf of students. He added, “You’re setting us up for failure.”
As a result of the merger, the Science and Discovery facility will house almost 800 students with a 36-to-1 student/teacher ratio.
“Throughout the district, including the two newer high schools, an important goal of the last few years has been to reduce class size as one means of enhancing student performance,” said Cheryl Cunningham, executive director of the Chester Education Foundation. “It is very unfortunate that any classrooms in the district will have to increase to 36 students because of budget issues; That is a number very difficult for any teacher to work with in order to insure that every student has sufficient time and attention to demonstrate proficiency in all of the required skills for their grade level,” she said.
The building will operate as two schools in one, according to Wells. Students are still entitled to their respective curriculums and school badges. The Allied Health sign will be moved to the Science and Discovery site. The building will even operate under two school principals, two climate managers and two secretaries.
“It’s our desire to merge our choice high schools; when we had to pass our preliminary budget, we had to face a lot of reductions,” Wells said to a near capacity Science and Discovery auditorium, adding, “This is one of the things the reductions forced us to do.”
Earlier in June, CUSD administrators were quoted in two separate media accounts saying they would not be forced to close or consolidate any of the district’s schools. During the Aug. 2nd community meeting, Wells said the newspapers misprinted information and she denied saying such.
“The only thing that has changed is the location,” said Science and Discovery Principal Michael Adamek. “Just because you’re changing a building or location, doesn’t mean it’ll change your personality,” he said. Adamek also complimented the building’s new library facility, with “over $60,000 in library books” and the school’s science labs. Allied Health’s labs will also be transferred to Science and Discovery.
“Our program is staying the same,” said Allied Health Principal Angela Thompson, “except we’ll have nicer classrooms and nicer hallways.” Core classes will be combined between the schools and the existing APEX computer-assisted program in the classrooms will remain. Some parents worried about student productivity and inappropriate internet browsing, especially after the growth in class sizes. The program was said to be designed to assist a teacher; half the class works on the computer while a teacher works with the other half. Then they switch.
Wells assured that a computer program would be put in place to prevent any counterproductive activities online. “We’re really turning our district upside down to make sure we provide the best education possible with our resources,” she said.
The schools’ popular dual-enrollment programs with Widener and Eastern universities are unlikely to continue in the meantime, or may have to be parent-sponsored, according to Wells. Even so, it will probably not be available until spring 2012, she said.
“That’s the sound of our school district crumbling,” state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland remarked, after piercing sound system interference frequently frustrated many in the audience who either heard few comments or lots of feedback throughout the meeting. Kirkland himself stood during the Q&A session, asking what would come of the Smedley facility after the merger. “It’s under advisement,” Wells answered.
Chris Dorsey, attempting to be a voice of reason, said, “We got to support our kids. We may not like what we’re hearing, so voice your opinion, get it out, and then move on.”
For those who lost their jobs in the budget process, moving on may not be as easy.
Despite originally proposing drastic staff cuts – 40 percent of teachers, 53 percent of operational staff, 50 percent of support staff and 13% of administrative staff state restoration of $10.5 million in late June enabled the district to discuss bringing some staff back.
At a special board meeting last Thursday, the district announced the recall of 35 staff members from a list of about 171 furloughed teachers and staff. A SPIRIT source at the meeting said it wasn’t enough to keep the audience of mostly teachers from hollering at the school board and Board President Wanda Mann.
At the same meeting, CUSD spokesman Joel Avery’s contract was extended for another year. Avery was paid $4,000 a month for the last few months; he will now be paid $5,000 a month.
“This is crazy; they couldn’t keep Allied Health open but are surely happy to increase individual’s salaries,” said Amir Farag, an Allied Health senior.
In a telephone call on Monday, Mann explained it’s not a raise. “Joel was in one of our first salary cutbacks; $1,000 was taken from him and now $1,000 is going to be given back,” she said. While some may question the timing, Mann said, “Joel is somebody we have to keep here, especially now, we have to get our name out there and Joel has been doing a fantastic job. Mann also said all the district’s consultants’ contracts get renewed for the beginning of the school year.
As for the outbursts from the audience, Mann said, “It’s not the community, it’s a handful of people running for a position; they use our school board meetings as their platform for campaigning. We need to start getting along and thinking of the kids. If we’re going to fight, let’s fight about the kids.”