On the evening of January 14th, I sat there aghast as I listened to multiple board members share their rationales for voting to close Mattison Avenue Elementary school. Unfortunately, the school district will not share a written transcript of this important meeting so I cannot comment on all of the rationales, but Ms. Brown publically posted her comments and the following are the corrections to her misguided “facts” regarding the closure.
[Text in italics are School Board member Marjorie Brown's original comments from her Letter to the Editor dated January 18, 2013.]
The Mattison building is not ADA compliant – various improvements will be needed to accommodate disabled individuals if the school remains open, including installing an elevator and a chair lift. Renovations of at least $3.4 million will be necessary, with complete renovations costing $7 million . . . All this to benefit 177 students who could be placed elsewhere.
This is an incorrect statement. In fact, Mattison is fully compliant with the ADA requirements that were in place when it was built. The current standards would require an elevator to access the second floor and handicapped access to the stage in the multipurpose room. These two issues would only need to be addressed if there was a “major” renovation to the Mattison Avenue building.
If you read the 253 page facilities study, some of Mattison Avenue’s “$3.4 million” of renovations include $422,000 for a dishwasher, $364,000 for recaulking windows & doors, $21,000 to repave a basketball court that was removed years ago, and $72,000 to replace the carpeting in the library which was removed after the storms in August and September of 2011. These estimated costs are either significantly inflated or outline work that is clearly not needed due to how long ago this study was conducted.
None of the items listed as recommended renovations for Mattison Avenue are classified as “major” and therefore the elevator and stage access are not required, shaving another $130,000 off that $3.4 million number for just the elevator.
Even fully renovated, the physical limitations of the building and building site prevent students at Mattison from experiencing some of the activities conducted at the other elementary schools.
This topic was fully discussed at both school board hearings. It was pointed out multiple times that the students at Mattison Avenue have ALL the same opportunities as the other elementary schools and in fact, the school is located in the middle of a thriving, walkable borough giving them opportunities that the other schools don’t have.
Mattison Avenue students can walk to the library, fire station, police station, playhouse, movie theater, drug store, bakery, and soon a grocery store. Additionally, the Wissahickon Valley Watershed is also within walking distance for outdoor educational opportunities as well as three borough parks.
Closing the building could yield a savings of approximately $3.4 million, which could then be applied to other District needs. There would also be recurring annual savings from closing the building.
Any “savings” would be significantly less than the $3.4 million as stated above, and the district administration and school board have repeatedly stated throughout this process (both publically and privately) that they would never “close a school for money.” Obviously that is not the case based upon this and other statements made by members of the school board on Monday, January 14th.
If the administration and board were going to use finances as a basis for their closure decision, it would have been a good idea to make sure the list of “necessary” renovations were accurate and reflected a real, usable number instead of the inflated $3.4 million dollar figure. Also, busing costs have not even been factored in.
But we know this is not just a financial issue. It is also an educational issue and a community issue. Educationally as a District, we seek to provide “equality of program” to all students in all of our classrooms. In other words, we strive to ensure that all Wissahickon students benefit from the same programs, the same resources, and similar educational experiences. In my opinion, the students who attend Mattison do not receive the best educational experience Wissahickon can offer them. There are, I believe, 3 reasons for this.
First, the grade span and building limitations place restrictions on the educational programs, activities and enhancements that can be offered at that school.
This was already addressed above. Mattison Avenue’s students have all the same opportunities that the other elementary schools have as well as having access to additional opportunities in their community that the other schools don’t have. There are no restrictions on their educational programs, activities or enhancements. The administration pointed out that our students weren't able to participate in chorus, band or Reading Olympics in some of their written rationale, but in fact none of those programs are available until FOURTH grade so it doesn’t apply to Mattison Avenue’s students.
Second, the transition from 3rd grade to 4th grade is disruptive, both educationally and socially, because the Mattison students are being transitioned into a K-5 setting where relationships have already been established. This is disruptive, not only for students from Mattison, but for students at Shady Grove as well.
The administration and school board heard repeatedly from parents and students that the transition from 3rd to 4th grade was NOT disruptive and in fact was helpful when transitioning to the middle school in 6th grade. The parents and students did repeatedly comment on how difficult it was to travel to Shady Grove, how they weren’t felt welcome there, and how some students weren’t treated well by some of the school staff. It was stated again and again by parents that the SCHOOL the students went to was the issue, not the transition itself.
The issues Mattison Avenue students have had at Shady Grove are not “news” to this administration. Parents and Mattison Avenue’s Home & School have been speaking to both the school and district administration for over five years about the challenges facing our students at Shady Grove. These school specific challenges were never addressed by either segment of the administration and, in fact, parents were chastised by the school board president at the hearings for even mentioning them.
And finally, although not mentioned in the Administration’s presentation, but known to those of us (like myself) who have received formal training to be educators, our public education system today, in fact current educational theory at its core, emphasizes the need for heterogeneous ability grouping in the classroom to maximize student learning. Stated differently, classrooms today are purposely designed to group together in every classroom students who possess a wide range of different academic abilities. The intended result is improved performance of all students at all ability levels. This principle is the cornerstone of our education system today.
To accomplish this, a large enough population of students is needed in each grade level at each school from which students of different abilities can be assigned to each classroom. The small student population at Mattison makes it difficult, if not virtually impossible, to accomplish successful heterogeneous ability grouping. This is supported by performance data from that school. The situation can be remedied, and higher academic achievement for all Mattison students as a group can be achieved, by having the students who now attend Mattison transfer to a larger elementary school.
Those of us (like myself) who have received formal training to be educators are fully aware of how Mattison Avenue has the most heterogeneous grouping of students in all of the Wissahickon School District’s elementary schools. Mattison Avenue has a student body of approximately 1/3 White, 1/3 Black, and 1/3 Hispanic. They have 51% of their students classified as economically disadvantaged (qualifying for free or reduced lunch). Explain to me exactly how this student body is less heterogeneous than Shady Grove (75% White/16.6% Economically Disadvantaged) or Lower Gwynedd (77% White/13.2% Economically Disadvantaged)?
Again, I will restate this. Mattison Avenue Elementary School has THE MOST HETEROGENEOUS GROUPING OF STUDENTS IN THE DISTRICT.
As a parent, I am insulted by the attitude of the district administration and the school board that the students of Mattison Avenue must move to a school in a wealthier neighborhood, with a MORE HOMOGENEOUS student population in order to have a “better” education.
The performance data from Mattison Avenue shows a school that achieves AYP every year as well as showing a school that meets the needs of its diverse, heterogeneous student body. The data from the district administration showed a small sliver of information without the larger picture. When looking at ALL of the data available, it is clear that Mattison Avenue is an exemplary school that should be used as a model for other elementary schools instead of having it closed.
The only thing that moving Mattison Avenue’s students will accomplish is to dilute the diverse student body among the other more homogeneous schools. If the district’s goal is to raise the percentage of students passing the PSSA’s, they would leave the largest population of lower scoring students in the small classrooms where they are receiving the individual attention they need. How can losing these higher risk students in larger classrooms, in schools three times the size, help them succeed when they are using the same curriculum, with the same teachers, having the same socio-economic challenges?
I recognize that closing Mattison will negatively impact the Ambler community. The transportation issues that have been raised are a real concern, but there is a solution. This Board can . . . and should . . . direct the Administration to establish a system, free of charge, for transporting parents who lack other means of transportation to the elementary school their children attend during key school events and activities.
Who is the arbiter of what is a “key” event or activity? A concert? Parent – teacher meeting? How about Bingo Night? Volunteering in the classroom for Kidwriting? or Helping with a classroom event? How insulting to close our neighborhood school for the most insubstantial of reasons and then offer transportation for sanctioned “key” events.
Head Start, which is funded by the federal government and operated by the County, not the District, is a very worthwhile program. And although Wissahickon has no control over the future continuation or elimination of that program, this Board can . . . and should . . . direct the Administration to take whatever steps it can to facilitate the relocation of the Head Start program to another facility in the Ambler community.
Since it is the goal of the Wissahickon School District for every student to achieve, one would think that it would be in the district’s best interest to do EVERYTHING in their power to ensure that the Head Start program is successful right in Ambler Borough where it is needed the most. Having the program IN the school where most of these students will start kindergarten was the perfect intersection of support for the families that need it most. To have the district specifically state that their commitment to early education is evident in their full day kindergarten program and they aren’t “responsible” for Head Start is an oxymoron at best. If the district was committed to early education (repeatedly proven to be one of the most financially efficient ways to close the achievement gap, which is a district goal) then the district would have continued to have Head Start at Mattison with kindergarten just down the hall…and even expanded Head Start to include all the students who were on the waiting list!
The appeal of a walkable school is strong and I know this is what many in the Ambler community desire. Twelve years ago while serving on this Board, I voted to keep Mattison Avenue Elementary open because I believed, at that time, a small community school was the optimal learning environment for students. But today is a new day. We now see from examining District data not previously available that small community schools are not the answer and that Mattison students would be better served in a larger, more academically diverse school. Even though some members of the Ambler community prefer to maintain the status quo, I cannot in good conscience endorse it.
Over the last seven months the district provided data was shown to NOT support any of the things they stated about Mattison or the performance of the students who attend there. The data showed that Mattison students are best served exactly where they are, in their small, academically diverse, community school. Unfortunately statements like those made above, lead us to believe that most members of the school board never read ALL of the data provided by the community, critically read the facilities report, considered that the district administration was wrong, or even had the courtesy of ever visiting Mattison Avenue Elementary to witness the wonderful education going on within its own walls.