BARNEGAT – As most people know by now, the Barnegat Township School District is embracing the idea of reconfiguration. The district will be holding a special reconfiguration meeting for parents on March 14 at 6 p.m. at Barnegat High School.
A letter was sent out to parents on March 4, 2019 from Superintendent Brian Latwis and Business Administrator Stephen Brennan detailing the sudden need to such a major change.
The letter, in part, read: “Had you asked the administrative team a month ago if we would be reconfiguring the district as of September 2019, our answer would have been ‘no.’ Then, we were challenged with the question, ‘If this is good for our children, why would we wait another year?’”
While district officials addressed the fact that the change is a bit sudden, many parents still do not agree that this is “good for our children.”
Essentially, the reconfiguration would transform the district from four separate elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school into “one unified district” that would have Barnegat students matriculating through each school every couple of years.
The new set up would be:
- Grades Pre-K and Kindergarten: Cecil S. Collins School
- Grades 1 and 2: Joseph T. Donahue School
- Grades 3 and 4: Lillian M. Dunfee School
- Grades 5 and 6: Robert L. Horbelt School
- Grades 7 and 8 Russell O. Brackman School
- Grades 9 through 12: Barnegat High School
According to Superintendent Latwis, the district’s main reason for instituting the change is “to maximize success and resources.” He believes that reconfiguration will provide students with a better classroom experience, more equal enrichment opportunities, and allow for better teacher collaboration, among other advantages.
Latwis is aware of the not-so-pleasant parent response to the potential changes. He noted that he understands these as “valid concerns” to which he has “valid answers,” he said.
Tracy Sutton is a parent of the district whose daughter attends the Donahue School. Sutton created a petition, along with fellow parent Christine Matzer Krug, to advocate against the reconfiguration plan and also plans to take legal action against the district to “stop this plan from being put in place.”
“To be completely honest, I think the proposed plan is beyond absurd. I see no benefit to making children change schools every two years,” Sutton told Jersey Shore Online. “Children need stability, they need structure. They need to feel comfortable and familiar in their surroundings and they need to be able to form relationships with their teachers.”
The reconfiguration plan has students jumping to another Barnegat district school every two years from pre-k until high school. Sutton believes the constant change of setting and atmosphere will deny them this stability and structure.
“Many children do not do well with constant change, it causes stress and anxiety for them and no one is going to convince me otherwise,” she added. “This plan also robs children the elementary school experience and the opportunity of attending school with a younger or older sibling who may be a source of comfort for each other.”
Sutton’s daughter would need to move to the Dunfee School to start 4th grade next year. She would then change schools again the following year to move into 5th and 6th grade at the Horbelt School.
Not only would she switch schools often, her daughter would no longer be able to walk to school.
“If this plan is implemented she will have to be transported across town for an undetermined amount of time on a school bus twice a day for the next three years to attend two different schools before she even gets to middle school. That is unacceptable to me,” Sutton explained.
Sutton’s concerns are the concerns of many parents, especially those like herself that live within walking distance of their school.
Still, the district is promoting many of the benefits of the plan. The letter also detailed how the new structure would work to eliminate middle school anxiety.
“By creating five 2-year grade spans, we are eliminating the ‘middle school’ and the anxiety that goes along with it; now, it is just the ‘next paw up’,” the letter read.
The driving idea behind this is “one Bengal from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade” allowing students to grow together and create a “more unified community,” according to the district.
Sutton is skeptical of the validity of this plan, noting that the anxiety associated with high school still exists.
“Middle school is a stepping stone to moving up and moving on. Many children see it as a milestone,” she said.
While 7th and 8th grade will still be held in the Brackman School, Sutton doesn’t think that removing the word “middle” from the school’s name will do much to relieve middle school anxiety.
Another main concern for parents of the district: cost. Will the reconfiguration raise taxes?
Latwis told Jersey Shore Online that the cost to the taxpayers would be $0, with the exception of transportation. The district is currently awaiting a transportation report that would allow them to calculate the cost of transporting students to their new schools caused by the reconfiguration.
This is the only expense that Latwis identified, however the transportation report will not be available until April, he said.
“We thought it would be better to tell them [parents] now,” about the plan, before the results of the transportation study came in, he said. This way, the district could prepare parents for what’s to come prior to setting the price.
Despite what the district sees as a fleshed out plan, parents feel the change is rushed.
According to Latwis, the district’s new free preschool program (a result of the state’s Preschool Education Expansion Act grant) only took six weeks to get up and running and he prides the program as a major success so far. Based on this history, Latwis believes implementing the reconfiguration by fall 2019 will not be a problem.
Latwis sees major benefits to the reconfiguration that those outside of the administrative team might not see. He gave Jersey Shore Online a few examples: staff members will have more free time to dedicate to other district-wide initiatives and programs i.e. the Response to Intervention (RTI) program and a new writing initiative.
The RTI program focuses on helping students in areas where they might be falling behind and need special help in certain subject. Latwis noted that 65 percent of Barnegat students “are not on level in math” and RTI helps to correct this. With the reconfiguration, guidance counselors and some teachers will be freed up to spend more time with RTI students to improve academic performance and test scores, he explained.
In addition, the district is considering implementing a new writing initiative to improve another area where some Barnegat students are testing poorly. The reconfiguration would free staff members up to become literacy coaches for the writing program.
Latwis stressed that no staff would be lost in the process of reconfiguration; rather, staff would just be reallocated to other areas to bridge the gap between Barnegat’s great students and not-so-shining test scores.
This free time will also be utilized for more comprehensive teacher collaboration, he added.
“When you put those teachers [of the same grades] together, they’re going to have more time,” to focus on lesson plans and collaborative teaching methods, he said.
Despite these improvement plans, many parents fail to see how the benefits will outweigh the immense change to the students and their families.
“I do not see any positives in this plan,” Sutton said. “My husband and I only have one child and have an ever-growing list of concerns…I can’t imagine how families with multiple children are feeling.”
With her petition, Sutton is hoping to “remind the Superintendent and the Members of the Board of Education that they are public servants” and to “understand that they have no right to make such drastic changes to our children’s educational structure and experience without any input from us as parents.”
The petition, called “Say No to the Redistricting of the Barnegat School System,” has already garnered support from many, reaching 663 of its goal of 1,500 signatures as of March 6.
Some supporters of the petition stated their anxiety over the issue in the comments:
- Michelle C. wrote: “It affects my children. My son is already stressed that he will have to go to a new school instead of finishing his elementary years at a school he loves and has been at since kindergarten. He won’t be in the same school as his little brother anymore. This will be a financial hardship for so many families in this town!”
- Danielle P. wrote: “While children are resilient to change, they also need consistency. Redistributing that causes unnecessary unhealthy change is not acceptable, especially without the input of parents and the community at large.”
- John G. wrote: “There had been no significant reason why the change is needed. It was rushed and impactful. Concerned on hidden increases costs.”
Sutton also plans to take “whatever legal action necessary” to put a stop to the impending reconfiguration. While she has not told Jersey Shore Online which attorney she will be hiring for this purpose, she said she plans to present her case to the Board of Education soon.
“This proposed plan should be a referendum question for the next Township Election not a forced concept that is shoved down everyone’s throats whether we like it or not,” she said. “Some plans may look good on paper and that is exactly where they should stay.”