A Local School District Thrives Despite Recession

In Granby, Mass., near Northampton, teachers and administrators are breathing a sigh of relief as they prepare for the upcoming school year. Using stimulus grants and reserve funds, and by making minor cuts, Granby kept its school budget nearly identical to last year, despite the recession.

For Fiscal Year 2010, which began on July 1st, Granby lost $150,000 of state aid and faced an increase of $240,000 in contractual obligations over last year. To close this deficit, the town:

-used half of the stimulus money it received (the other half had to be used for new initiatives and investments);

-used more money from other towns whose residents decided to send their children to Granby compared to last year, meaning there are now less funds in the school reserve account;

-budgeted almost $100,000 less for heating oil, the price of which has decreased considerably since last year, and $20,000 less for new high school textbooks, among other minor cuts.

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Pam McCauley, principal of West Street Elementary, but “the town and the school worked well together to make the best out of the situation.”

John Robert, associate superintendent, agreed Granby was in good shape considering how many other communities have been forced to cut school budgets. He is especially grateful for the stimulus money, which he said saved jobs.

School board member Kevin Boisselle is glad Granby escaped serious cuts, but noted that since the budget is so small, there was not much to cut anyway. For fiscal year 2010 it came to almost $10 million dollars, breaking down to $9,363 per student, the eighth lowest per-student funding rate in the state, according to Massachusetts Department of Education data.

Boisselle said Granby has had a small school budget for as long as he can remember.

“We always had to stay pretty lean, could never afford a lot of extra things,” he said. Boisselle noted that even with this budget, Granby had a 95 percent graduation rate in 2008 and excellent test scores.

“For what we’re spending we are very efficient, and that is directly because of our great administrators and teachers,” Boisselle said.

Constant reform and improvement is needed to extract the most out of a limited budget. This year the elementary school, which has pre-K through 3rd grades, will introduce a new "tiered" reading program. Supplemental staff will help classroom teachers meet the individual needs of students at all levels, or “tiers,” of ability, which is meant to address one of the inherent problems in classroom education- children learn in a variety of styles and paces that are nearly impossible for one teacher to address.

“Every child learns differently,” McCauley said. “For some, the classroom instruction of a certain concept is too fast or confusing. With the extra staff, we’ll be able to go back and review those items they may have missed.”

The state recommends that children be proficient in reading by the fourth grade, which McCauley said is a more attainable goal if supplemental instruction is immediately provided to the students who require it. McCauley said the program is designed to help as many students as possible meet the state recommendation, which she considers important because “good reading skills are an important foundation for the rest of their education.”

Elementary school also provides the educational foundation for math, which is why West Street will continue using “Investigations”, a math instruction program introduced over the past three years. It emphasizes a “hands-on” approach, whereby, using a variety of small objects, children see math problems physically represented. McCauley said this helps develop a good “number sense,” which she considers essential for advanced math.

“If children don’t understand numbers, can’t understand efficient ways to use and manipulate them, then they won’t be able to apply any kind of math reasoning to subjects like Algebra,” McCauley said.

McCauley said children are more likely to enjoy math if they understand, rather than just memorize, its concepts- like what actually happens to numbers when they are “carried,” which is easily represented using objects.

“The way I was taught, math was something you followed the rules for, and that was it,” McCauley said. “Now we're teaching them to understand math, which makes it easier and more enjoyable.”

East Meadow school, which has 4th through 6th grades, also recently devised new curriculum initiatives: 10 week after school enrichment clubs for above average students of all grades. A math club was organized last year, which will be available again this year along with an English enrichment club.

“We felt a need to challenge the kids who do well academically,” said James Pietras, East Meadow principal, who said programs for underachieving students take place during the school day, making after school the best time for the enrichment clubs.

The clubs exemplify how the school has learned to work with its limited budget.

“We do an awful lot with not too much,” he said.

The math club received positive reviews from students and parents, which made adding a club for passionate English students an easy decision.

“We like to focus on a few things, but do them well,” Pietras said. “It’s more effective than spreading yourself too thin.”

The clubs will meet at different times for the coming year so students can attend both.

The Jr./Sr. High School, which has 7th through 12th grades, is responding to increasing adolescent obesity with a new course that combines gym and health into one wellness class that 7th graders began having every day last year and 8th graders will have every day this year. Within one 85 minute block, students receive health instruction- including nutrition, dangers posed by drugs and alcohol, and how to deal with peer pressure and bullying, among other topics- and engage in physical activity.

Assistant Principal Jonathan Cavallo said students like the wellness class more than having health and gym separate, and combining the subjects makes more logistical and educational sense.

“We were excited about what we saw in the 7th grade class,” Cavallo said. “It's important that kids at this age level are exposed to the material this class presents, and also that they exercise as much as possible.”

The East Meadow Middle School (4th – 6th grades) has 277 students. West Street Elementary School (pre-K to 3rd grade) has 300 students. The Granby Jr./Sr. High School (7th - 12th grades) has 560 students.

The sense of relief school personnel felt about this year's budget will likely dissipate once worrying begins over next year's budget, as many are concerned it may take a while for the economy to fully recover.

“I think we’re looking at another tough year next year,” said John Robert, Associate Superintendent, “another year of tightening our belts.”

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This article first appeared in the Hampshire Gazette. It is used here with the author's permission.

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