I made the following statement at the January 14, 2013 meeting of the Wisshickon Board of School Directors regarding the closure of Mattison Avenue Elementary School. I present it here to better inform the community of my reasons for supporting closure of the school.
First, I want to thank the many parents, students, teachers and community members who have taken the time to attend our Board meetings, write letters and emails, and express their views on this important issue. Your opinions and the information you have provided to us have been a very important part of this process.
As school directors, our task is to make decisions based upon what we believe is in the best interest of all members of the Wissahickon community. Our decisions are driven by our three Board goals: (1) maximizing the academic achievement of all Wissahickon students, (2) closing the achievement gap, and (3) operating District facilities and programs with maximum efficiency and accountability.
From a financial perspective, the decision to close MA is an easy one. We have excess building capacity. At this time, Mattison Avenue Elementary only services 177 students. Our 4 other elementary schools can easily absorb 400 additional students without impacting current District class size guidelines. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
Marjorie A. Brown, Member, Wisssahickon School Board