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School Committee supports educational recommendation for Gibbs option

UPDATED, April 16: The School Committee voted unanimously Thursday, April 14, to support the educational recommendation of Superintendent Kathleen Bodie to return the former Gibbs School to classroom use.

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"While recognizing there are other issues (including fiscal concerns) that must be considered in a decision to either renovate the Gibbs School or build an addition to the Ottoson Middle School," she wrote in an April 10 memo, "my recommendation based on the educational effect of a large middle school on student wellbeing and learning is to bring the Gibbs building back into service for the Arlington Public Schools."

The committee vote was 6-0. New member Leonard Kardon was absent, on vacation.

The vote took place following committee discussion noting that the School Enrollment Task Force expects to receive a final report about the cost of options for Ottoson, the former Gibbs and Thompson on April 28. The task force is expected to vote a recommendation that night.

If using the former Gibbs turns out to be the final decision for middle-school expansion, the current tenants of the building must be notified by the end of this June. Their official move­out date would be July 1, 2017.

The four main tenants are the Arlington Center for the Arts, the Kelliher Center, the Learn to Grow preschool and the Lesley Ellis School. Each has been situated there since the late 1980s.

The School Committee vote also followed a presentation by Ottoson teachers that favored the Gibbs option and not and expanded middle school.

Yet to be determined is the specific nature of the Gibbs option -- whether it will be a sixth grade or sixth-through-eighth grades.

The committee also voted to hold a public hearing May 5 to present details about these decisions. The committee also expects to take a vote on a debt exclusion at a May 12 meeting, if the Board of Selectmen votes to out a measure on the ballot. The town's Long Range Planning Committee only this week discussed possibly holding a public ballot June 11.

Two discussions precede vote

Before the vote were two meaty discussions -- the first spurred by four Ottoson teachers and Assistant Principal Jack Flood who reported the results of a survey of opinion about middle-school expansion.

In general, the majority of teachers did not prefer a larger Ottoson and did lean toward the former Gibbs, as well as making it a grade-six school.

The current Ottoson has a student population nearly double its recommended size. Opened in 1998 for 600, enrollment now nears 1,200.

"We don't have the relationship with students we used to have," one teacher told the committee, because of the number of students.

At the same time, a number of special-education teachers feared their students would find it hard to handle multiple transitions that would occur, depending on the grade configuration. They tend to prefer a sixth-through-eighth setup.

Teachers noted that commuting back and forth between Ottoson and Gibbs would be "challenging."

"This is such a persuasive report," School Committee member Paul Schlichtman said. "We should take expansion off the table. It's not feasible."

Read the full reports here >> The report on the teacher survey was prepared by Jenna Fernandes, Flood, Randi Flynn, Beth Hazzard, Julianna Keyes, Jason Levy, Heather Mahoney, Judith Packer, Alecia Serafini and Anne Zachary.

Committee responses

The School Committee then discussed the matter after Bodie said, "The teachers here summarized my feelings .... Of the two options, Gibbs or an addition, we should bring Gibbs back into service." (Read the full text of her memo about that below.)

Very quickly, member Jeff Thielman moved to endorse Bodie's recommendation, making clear that her memo asks what is best educationally.

Member Bill Hayner wondered whether such a vote would remove the former Gibbs as surplus school property.

Thielman countered that the School Enrollment Task Force would recommend that step.

Member Kirsi Allison-Ampe agreed with Thielman as well as the general thrust of Bodie's memo, particularly regarding the size of projected Ottoson expansion.

"I don’t want to lose on a technicality," Hayner said.

These comments came within the context of exchanges about the tight turnaround for a possible debt-exclusion vote June 11.

Member Jennifer Susse said that, if the matter will be on the ballot, the selectmen would have to vote to do that 35 days before the projected date. That would be May 7.

High Rock School visit

Among the factors affecting the committee vote April 14 was a visit a delegation from Arlington made recently to the High Rock School in Needham. The grade-six-only school was converted from a surplus elementary school seven or so years ago, when Needham was going through the same kind of growth at middle-school level that we are seeing now, Allison-Ampe explained April 15.

"Originally it was only intended to be a stop-gap measure, but it has worked out really well," she wrote. "There have been a couple of decision points where they could have gone back to a more typical model, and the community has strongly supported staying with the 6th-grade-only school."

Committee members attending were Hayner, Susse and Allison-Ampe. Accompanying them were many staff members, including Bodie, Flood, Maureen Murphy and teachers.

The vote to accept Bodie's recommendation was unanimous.

Full text of superintendent's April 10, 2016, memo on which the committee voted:

Recommendation Regarding Gibbs or OMS Addition

While recognizing there are other issues (including fiscal concerns) that must be considered in a decision to either renovate the Gibbs School or build an addition to the Ottoson Middle School, my recommendation based on the educational effect of a large middle school on student wellbeing and learning is to bring the Gibbs building back into service for the Arlington Public Schools.

While the research on the effect of school size on student achievement is fairly inconclusive, in part because few studies have been conducted, research has shown, however, that there is a relationship between feeling connected to school and academic performance, behavior and health. In smaller schools students are more likely to feel part of the school culture and develop strong relationships both with teachers and peers. While I am confident that we will maintain a strong academic program for our middle school students regardless of whether they attend a larger Ottoson Middle School or a smaller Gibbs and Ottoson, I think that a smaller school environment will help support feelings of connectivity and help mitigate the stress many students feel presently, evidenced by more students reporting anxiety, increased student visits to the nurse, and more hospitalizations for anxiety.

The increase in student anxiety we are seeing at all levels K-12 is a phenomena that is being reported in many school districts. When students feel generalized anxiety, this feeling can and does interfere with learning. One study shows that "emotions can facilitate or impede children's academic engagement, work ethic, commitment, and ultimate school success. Because relationships and emotional processes affect how and what we learn, schools and families must effectively address these aspects of the educational process for the benefit of all students." (Elias et al., 1997) There is ample evidence in many studies over the last decade that show that students learn best in classrooms and schools where the environment provides a good academic social-emotional balance. While achieving this important balance is possible in large schools, it is easier to achieve in smaller schools.

In the Arlington Public Schools, our focus to support the social-emotional well-being of students motivated the decision to have a social worker in every school. We have developed advisory An Equal Opportunity School System with a High Commitment to Diversity programs at both the middle and high schools and we provide, for example, responsive classroom training for elementary teachers, the "Helping Traumatized Students" course, and training for teachers in crisis care. We chose the Tools of the Mind program for Kindergarten to help our young students develop the self-management, decision-making, and social skills needed as a foundation for learning and, ultimately, success in life. Our goal for Kindergarten students is the same for all students no matter their age.

Yet, even with these efforts we still are seeing too many students exhibiting anxiety. While there is no certainty we will see a decrease in student anxiety with the choice for two smaller middle school environments, our experience as educators and research in this area suggests that we will.

Given the expected enrollment growth in our middle school over the next five to ten years, we must find additional space to meet the educational needs of this growing population of students.

We have a choice between two options. The choice for an addition to the existing middle school creates an even more labyrinthine building that may affect students' feeling of connection to and comfort in their school environment. Difficulty with navigating an even larger building will likely cause some students increased stress.

We know that many sixth grade students now feel stress navigating the building for several months of their first year at OMS.

Choosing smaller schools for our middle school students rather than one large school does have program implications that are described in the accompanying chart. However, on balance, I still think that the benefits of having smaller, more scaled learning environments offset programmatic changes or losses that would occur.

Additionally, the recommendation to choose Gibbs rather than an addition to OMS is based on my assessment that Gibbs provides the school system and community with a more flexible alternative for future educational decisions.

Footnote: Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., Kessler, R., SchwabStone, M. E., & Shriver, T. P. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

March 28, 2016: School Committee votes to express sense of urgency about enrollment moves

March 22, 2016: Long Range Planning faces debt-exclusion decisions

March 9, 2016: Task force hopes interim cost data for school options ready in a month

Nov. 15, 2014: Racism? Bodie says updated numbers show decline in out-of-school suspensions

This report was published Thursday, April 14, 2016, and updated April 16, to include a fuller report.

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