BRUNSWICK — Results of a survey conducted by the School Department suggest parents are deeply concerned about a plan to move fifth-graders to Brunswick Junior High School.
Last week, the School Board bowed to pressure from opponents of the move, who gathered 875 petition signatures, and agreed to review its decision to move the students next school year.
The results of the survey, which the School Department has declined to make available to the general public, further reveal the degree of public dissatisfaction with the plan.
Concerns expressed by 326 respondents include interaction between younger and older students, the use of portable classrooms, changes in the school-day schedule, and transportation.
Unedited comments, collected in almost 40 pages attached to the survey results, are almost entirely critical of the plan, with only a handful in full support.
Superintendent Paul Perzanoski, in an interview Tuesday, said he was not surprised by the survey results, but also did not find them particularly helpful.
“I think they were based on an emotional response,” Perzanoski said.
“When you know that you have opposition to what you’re trying to do, you don’t expect that you’re going to get a lot of positive comments,” he added. “I don’t think it was very objective at all, but it’s based on how they feel, so it’s important.”
The survey results were given to School Board members as part of their Jan. 14 meeting materials last week, but were not included in the version of the information packet made available to the public on the School Department website.
Perzanoski said he wanted to give the board the results before a hastily-arranged presentation by opposition petitioners on Jan. 14, and did not intend to make the results public until a presentation later this spring.
The board in May voted to move the fifth grade to BJHS, in a effort to ease overcrowding at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.
But the prospect of fifth-graders interacting with older students on a daily basis did not sit well with respondents to the survey, which The Forecaster obtained from the School Department.
About 73 percent, or 244 respondents, said keeping younger students separate from sixth- through eighth-graders was either most important or second-most important to them, compared with only 17 percent who said it was least important.
In their comments, parents expressed concern that fifth-graders would be exposed to inappropriate behavior or bullying from older students, or that the move would compromise success at the middle school.
“I think the whole idea is bad but if it has to be since there seems there is no choice, I would prefer my 5th grader away from other students at all times,” one parent said.
Transportation also raised concerns, with 269 respondents, or 80 percent, saying they would like the fifth grade to have a separate seating area at the front of school buses.
Additionally, 215 respondents, or 63 percent, said the fifth grade should keep the same schedule as grades 2-4, and not adopt the middle and high school schedule that begins an hour earlier in the morning.
Respondents also overwhelmingly indicated that small class sizes, parent involvement, and recess are important fifth-grade issues.
In comments, parents brought up other issues, questioning the wisdom of installing portable classrooms at BJHS and suggesting moving the entire second grade to Coffin Elementary School.
Others said that more students shouldn’t be added to the middle school, considering the building’s age and condition.
“I’m appalled that you are taking next year’s fifth graders out of a new and updated building and moving them to a dilapidated building that cannot accommodate them,” one respondent wrote.
While most showed frustration and anger over the decision to move, a minority expressed support for the plan.
“I am confident that the dedicated teachers, support staff and administration of Brunswick Jr. High will continue the legacy of exceptional educational programming that makes Brunswick an ideal place to raise my family,” one respondent wrote.
Perzanoski said he was not surprised by the lack of positive feedback.
“When somebody is trying to make a point it usually brings out the negative comments, more than the positive comments,” the superintendent said.
School Board Member Rich Ellis, one of two board members who voted against the fifth-grade move, said Tuesday that the survey respondents brought up “legitimate concerns” about the proposal.
He said most of the commentary was rational, reasoned, and calm.
“It wasn’t people with pitchforks,” Ellis said. “It was basically people pointing out a plethora of problems this is going to introduce.”
The questions aren’t a reflection on the work staff have already done, but do raise important concerns that he shares, Ellis added.
“It should be eye opening for anyone wondering ‘what do people think about this change,'” he said.
But School Department officials see the comments differently.
In his quarterly letter to the district, posted Jan. 13, Perzanoski said he recognizes and supports differences of opinion and philosophy.
“My hope is always that debates happen with accurate information and without the denigration of employees, students, programs or schools,” he said. “It saddens me to read some of the comments made that are both inaccurate and unkind in order to support a particular cause or point of view.”
BJHS Principal Walter Wallace, who is leading the fifth-grade transition committee, said the group’s nine subcommittees are taking public input into account as they move forward.
“Anytime there is a proposed change like this, there’s lots of questions to be answered,” Wallace said. The transition committee intends to make recommendations to the board in April.
Although he knew that there were opponents to the plan, Wallace said he found some of the survey comments “offensive.”
“I always hope that people will be as civilized as possible, but sometimes they don’t meet that expectation,” he said.
It could be possible to keep the youngest students separate from the older grades, or have different start times, but the intention is to create a cohesive school for grades 5-8, he noted.
“We didn’t go into this looking for a temporary solution until other facilities were worked out,” Wallace said. “Our job was to make this as a permanent 5-8 configuration, so that’s the lens we’ve been looking at it through.”
The School Board intends to discuss and act on the fifth-grade transition at its Feb. 11 meeting.