By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — After months of collaborative work in pursuit of more homogenous class sizes across the district, members of the Niskayuna School District Class Size Management Workgroup faced the community the night of Feb. 11 to take questions and criticism from community members.
About 30 people attended the meeting in the cafeteria of Craig Elementary School, including teachers, Board of Education members, and parents, most carrying notebooks and folders full of paperwork.
After a half-hour presentation from interim Superintendent John Yagielski, the audience posed three main concerns: Where will students older than kindergarten be placed when they join the school district? Will parents whose kids already attend school outside their neighborhood be able to request changes in their students’ new school placements? And how will the district handle the intricacies of transitioning kids to middle school if the flex-zone plan is implemented?
Attendance-zone redistricting plans can be contentious, and can raise concern or even anger among parents. But this one would not move any students against their wishes, and the tone of the meeting was civil, with questions and feedback informational rather than critical.
The Elementary Flex Zone plan came about out of necessity. Yagielski said in May, shortly after he joined the district, he attended a PTO meeting at Craig Elementary where parents expressed concern that their kids might be disadvantaged by comparatively large class sizes.
“As I went through the community, from school to school, I began to hear that same pitch,” he said.
It was too late to create a permanent plan in time for the 2014-15 school year, so the district invited parents who were especially concerned about class size to voluntarily send their children to schools with more space. The offer resulted in 14 moves.
However, it was generally agreed that this plan would not constitute a sustainable long-term solution. It caused hassles for parents whose children needed to be carted all the way across town for after-school activities and play dates. It created barriers to neighborhood friendships between kids who didn’t attend the same elementary schools. And it threatened the efficiency of school bus routes between the neighborhoods.
So instead of addressing parental concerns on a case-by-case basis, the district invited representatives from each elementary school to join the Class Size Management Workgroup. Over the course of several months, from July to January, parents, administrators, and the district registrar worked to build a solution that could maintain balance into the future.
The system they devised is now referred to as Elementary Flex Zones. Rather than simply redrawing the district’s lines, which would be a temporary solution, they have proposed that certain boundaries become more flexible. In some areas, kindergartners and other new enrollees could be placed in one of two or even three schools, depending on the space available in classrooms at each one.
Though the group worked hard on its plan, they knew community members would have insight to add. During a period of public discussion at the meeting, a few common concerns came up that will likely have to be addressed before the Board of Education approves the plan.
One question frequently raised at the meeting involved the students who voluntarily transferred for the 2014-15 school year, or who joined the district recently and were placed at schools chosen for available space rather than for geographic location.
The district currently has 43 of these “displaced” students, and registrar Joan Vertigan said they would have the opportunity to give input on future placements in the same order they were displaced.
“Everybody who’s been displaced, all 43 of you, are on a waiting list,” she told the group.
The opportunity to elect for a second relocation is, for the most part, limited to students who were placed in 2014-15. If the Flex Zone plan is implemented, students will be expected to stay in the schools where they were placed as kindergartners or as new arrivals to the district.
“People really get connected to their elementary schools,” Yagielski explained. “That’s what we want. We want you to feel that way … We’re going to march together.”
Another recurring concern was the question of where students will go to middle school after they’re relocated. Some of the elementary schools that share a single flex zone under the plan traditionally feed into different middle schools. Potentially, families could be faced with the question of whether to keep students with their classmates or move them to a different middle school to be closer to their homes and their neighborhood friends.
Of the questions presented, the Class Size Management Workgroup members seemed least prepared to answer this one.
“While we touched on it a few times, we haven’t fully worked that issue of the middle school,” Yagielski admitted.
The group will take the community’s concerns into consideration before presenting the final version of its proposal to the Board of Education in the coming weeks.