LENOX -- After steady, and at times sharp drops over the past decade, student enrollment projections for the upcoming school year indicate the decline may be leveling off, with 236 students expected, compared to 241 at the end of the 2013-14 academic year.
Delivering an extensive update for the School Committee this week, interim Superintendent Timothy Lee noted that he was surprised to find that 23 percent of the students districtwide were classified as low-income in June, meaning they qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. In the elementary school, the current 28 percent level represented a dramatic increase from the 12 to 15 percent range in 2008.
"This number is shocking to me," said committee member Michael Moran. Lee assured him that the elementary school is "in a pretty good place meeting the learning and developmental needs of students who might be low-income." He cited an "intervention model that serves them pretty well."
The superintendent speculated that more families are choosing to apply for subsidized lunches. "We have been more assertive about getting people to apply," he added.
"Having these numbers is somewhat of a good thing for us," Lee told committee members at their annual midsummer retreat. "It makes the calculation for determining federal grants favorable."
He also called for studying the educational value of overseas school trips, which create a gap between haves and have-nots because of their expense.
Lee noted that the district’s 56 special education students represent 8 percent of total enrollment, a figure he described as "really low. The average can range from 12 to 15 percent, some districts are as high as 20 percent." He credited interventions at the elementary school and instruction aimed at easing any deficiencies students might have.
"It’s an area where our school district does some good work," said Lee, though he agreed with Fitzgerald’s suggestion that those efforts could be ramped up at the middle school.
Lee also emphasized his intention to help implement the School Committee’s still-emerging strategic plan for the future as well as enhancing professional development for teachers by connecting the faculty at different grade levels and subject areas in both district schools.
On collaboration with nearby districts, Lee cited existing programs in Lenox that others might want to join as well as "common needs ... how can we get together to provide solutions to those needs or problems."
Noting that changes in the law discouraging student discipline and suspensions -- "it’s basically ill-advised to put a child out of school anymore for any period of time and without any sort of academic instruction provided" -- solutions cutting across district lines should be explored, said Lee, such as an "off-site alternative program."
He also advocated "streamlining management functions" in the district, including "less-frequent but more targeted administrative meetings."
Lee called for setting examples more consistently by role-modeling to encourage civility and collaboration so people can resolve issues face-to-face. "Most of the participants in our school community are pretty civil, most of the time," he commented.
School Committee member Jo Anne Magee urged continuing and closer collaboration with new Town Manager Christopher Ketchen and the Select Board.
"A good-quality, solid relationship based on mutual understanding goes a long way," Fitzgerald added. "There needs to be a recognition that we’re all in this together, working toward the common goal of having the best school district we possibly can, and funding it within our means."
In a separate meeting earlier in the week, members of the Strategic Study Subcommittee focusing on the finances of the district set priorities for exploring the future direction of school choice as well as some forms of shared services, collaboration, regionalization or unionization with adjoining districts.
"I was kind of embarrassed that we didn’t get to the action steps and get that done prior to a new superintendent coming on board," said the group’s chairman, Robert Vaughan. "We spent a lot of time in the winter spinning our wheels."
During a 90-minute public session at Town Hall, the group agreed to "produce and communicate consistent evidence of financial stewardship." Key financial and academic performance updates would be distributed frequently to the full School Committee and the overall Lenox community.
Superintendent Lee, describing the district’s long-established, by-the-books budget procedure as "insane" with fixed categories that "never change," proposed consideration of other approaches such as starting from scratch or asking top administrators at each school to list their priorities. He emphasized that academic needs have to drive financial strategy.
"Maybe we look at how some other districts do it," he suggested, citing school systems with fewer resources, similar declines in enrollment, or new goals to be met. He also proposed seeking more revenue for the Lenox district by hosting programs that other nearby schools might want to join.
Vaughan listed shared services, collaboration, regionalization, school choice and revenue opportunities as additional action steps to be explored.
Committee member David Naseman called for improved public access to information on how the schools and its students are performing.
Magee summed up the key question facing the group -- "whether these strategies are appropriate to address our biggest problem, which is declining enrollment."
As Vaughan pointed out, when it comes to strategies, the School Committee and the superintendent will be "driving the direction and speed, and maybe picking different priorities than we might pick."
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Other highlights ...
Interim Lenox School Superintendent Timothy Lee included these points in his update for the School Committee on Wednesday:
n The state’s new educator evaluation system, going into its second year in the Lenox district, is more time-consuming and requires that teachers provide "more evidence" and engage in more discussions with supervisors. But the "quality of feedback we’re able to give is more useful and valid," he said, adding that a "proficient teacher under the system is doing some very good work. To be an exemplary teacher, you also have to serve as a model to all of your peers and do a number of other things, like ‘walk on water.’ "
n Alignment to the common-core curriculum is ramping up both at Morris Elementary, where writing instruction is being emphasized, and at Lenox Memorial Middle and High.
n A new online "parents’ portal" for tracking students’ progress has encountered technical difficulties and won’t be fully operational until the middle of the school year, though some information on academic schedules and other data will be available.
n A reboot of all the district’s web sites is being discussed, focusing on the potential "simple-to-use" Word Press format as well as freshening the sites’ appearance. However, the use of social media is not being explored currently.