Pilot Program Chopped at 5 Schools
LOWELL -- A pilot program impacting students enrolled in at least five schools will not return next year, according to school administrators.
“Although every single one of us at the table believe in the K-5 model we cannot recommend sustaining that for the upcoming school year,” said Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin.
The School Committee voted 5-2 to discontinue the pilot program. School Committee member Dominik Lay and Robert Hoey Jr. voted in opposition.
The discontinuation will have several effects:
n In the pilot, which ran this year, Reilly and Moody elementary schools enrolled students up to fifth grade. Next fall, these schools will stop at fourth grade.
n This year, under the pilot program, Sullivan Middle School did not offer fifth grade. Sullivan Middle School will offer fifth grade once again starting next fall.
n Current fourth- and fifth-graders at Reilly and Moody elementary schools, as well as some fourth-graders at Lincoln Elementary School, will attend Sullivan Middle School next fall.
n As part of the pilot program, Cardinal O’Connell Alternative Program closed and the building became an early childhood center. This setup will continue next school year.
n Next school year, the BRIDGE Program will expand to offer services to sixth-graders.
The pilot program was approved by the School Committee for the fiscal year 2019 budget developed under former Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui and district Chief Financial Officer Gary Frisch.
Durkin said implementation of the program encountered challenges due to budget issues. By shifting only two of the district’s elementary schools to fifth grade, it also introduced inequalities into the system, she said.
“Those fifth-grade students didn’t have the same instructional times as the fifth-grade students across the city,” Durkin said. “They also weren’t afforded all the same allied arts schedule ... and intramurals.”
The original plan included adding two alternative classrooms and a coordinator to oversee this program at Sullivan Middle School. Due to budget issues, these positions were not added and the fifth- and sixth-graders who, prior to the pilot, would have been enrolled in the Cardinal O’Connell Alternative Program, remained in their schools, according to Durkin
Durkin said fifth- and sixth-grade enrollment at Cardinal O’Connell Alternative Program was very low in the years before it closed.
She said the pilot also did not include a plan for Lincoln Elementary School students entering fifth grade this year who typically would have attended fifth grade at Sullivan Middle School.
“We didn’t have a place for them,” she said. “So what happened, and we are seeing the impact of it this year is many students had to be funneled to the Butler and different schools and some of them are out of zone.”
She said her office met with principals, the teachers union, staff and parents to get input and share information before making this recommendation.
Despite the end of the pilot program, she said her team will provide information to the new superintendent to help develop a multi-year plan to shift district-wide to schools that offer kindergarten through fifth grade.
Lay, who opposed ending the pilot, said he attended the parent meeting this Tuesday.
“That’s the reason for the pilot program: we want to try it and see how it is received,” he said. “Last night I was at the meeting and I felt that it was well received.”
Instead of the ending the program he said more schools should run on the kindergarten through fifth grade model.
School Committee member Connie Martin called Durkin’s explanation a “compelling case” for ending the program. School Committee member Jackie Doherty said she did not support the pilot when it came before the committee last year.
“We have to do it in a way that was equitable across the district and this pilot was never going to do that,” Doherty said.
Hoey opposed ending the pilot. He praised the closing of the Cardinal O’Connell Alternative Program and removal of fifth grade from Sullivan Middle School.
He also expressed concern for the safety of young students entering the middle school. Hoey said “a lot of people are afraid” of going to Sullivan and Robinson middle schools and suggested adding more disciplinary staff.
“They’re going to go into a school that -- people will tell you they’re 14,” Hoey said. “There are some kids that are 16 in our middle schools. There might be 17-year-olds in there.”
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins