Brunswick moves toward placing 5th-graders in junior high school

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BRUNSWICK — The School Board edged toward approving a plan to move fifth-grade students to Brunswick Junior High School, but requested more information about funding, facilities and transportation before making a final decision.

Junior High School Principal Walter Wallace and Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski in February proposed moving the fifth-graders into the school to ease overcrowding at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.

If approved, the shift would likely be permanent.

In a presentation to the board Wednesday, Wallace said 12 of 23 Maine schools running a grade 5-8 school model responded to a survey and reported positive experiences. But they also highlighted challenges, such as transitioning students and staff into the new configuration.

If the board pursues the junior high option, it will require moving portable buildings to the school’s campus to add room for eight classrooms, Wallace said.

The current junior high was built to hold 750 students, but has only 458 this year. This year’s fifth-grade class has 141 students.

More classroom space would allow the school to deliver an appropriate level of accommodation and programing for the new fifth grade, Perzanoski said.

The school will have to develop a transition plan for staff, students and parents; develop a new school day schedule, and add stipend positions to accommodate extracurricular activities for younger students, Wallace said.

He also acknowledged the school will have to make space for physical education, art and special education, which will require a review of the school’s layout, consolidating current support classrooms, new technology, and a change of bus routes.

Despite the challenges, Wallace said the move has many positive aspects.

Besides relieving overcrowding at Harriot Beecher Stowe, bringing in the fifth-grade will promote different classroom configurations, new extracurricular activities, and integrate students into a middle-level model.

“We can educate fifth-graders or 10-year-olds very well in this model,” Wallace said. “That’s not the challenge for me at all. The challenge for me is what we’ve listed, and change for a lot of folks.”

Board members had a generally positive view of the proposal, but concerns lingered about space, focus and funding.

Board member Corinne Perreault said she is concerned by space constraints, especially for special education students.

“I really think this is a big problem,” Perreault said. “I can’t be OK with moving them to a facility where we can provide them with a teacher, but we can’t provide them with a space. I need to have that answered first.”

Board members were also unclear about the proposal’s cost.

In February, adding portables to the junior high was reported to cost $215,000, as opposed to a $1.2 million option to move the second-grade to a new building next to the Coffin Elementary School. But board members could not recall the precise figures during Wednesday’s meeting.

The needs of current junior high students should also be kept in mind if the plan goes forward, board member James Grant said.

“We need to keep an eye on the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to make sure that they prosper, as well as most of the focus on fifth grade,” Grant said.

Board members declined to vote on the proposal, requesting updated information on possible bus routes, classroom space and cost estimates before making a decision at their next meeting.

Although agreeing that more precise information was needed, Chairwoman Michele Joyce urged her colleagues to make a decision soon.

“This board has a habit of talking things to death,” she said. “I would just like to have some sort of idea of when we can make this decision, so we can move forward with the other decisions we have to make.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3660 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @midcoastmcguire.