A Small School's Examination: Can Chilmark Attract Others?

By CHRIS BURRELL

They like the small classes, the low student-to-teacher ratio and the strong feeling of community at the Chilmark School.

But some of the parents surveyed this spring by a new task force investigating reasons for low enrollment gave the grammar school low marks in the areas of communication, leadership and staff turnover.

The survey results released this week come after a year of public scrutiny of the Chilmark School, where a sharp decline in enrollment sent per-pupil expenses soaring over the $20,000 mark. Only 45 students enrolled last year at the K-5 school, which is part of the Up-Island Regional School District.

Faced with cuts in state educational aid, members of the finance committee in West Tisbury - one of the member towns in the school district - started pressing Chilmark leaders to shoulder more of the costs in the district and even consider closing down the school altogether.

Chilmark leaders quickly rejected that notion, but they formed their own task force in an effort to bolster the school.

The anonymous survey was mailed out to 103 families with children aged three to 14, nearly all of them in the towns of Aquinnah and Chilmark. Of the 58 responses sent back, 36 came from families who had enrolled a child at the Chilmark School in the last three years.

Most of the respondents - 41 - came from Chilmark. Only 11 surveys were returned from families in Aquinnah, with the remainder coming from parents in West Tisbury and other Island towns who sent children to the K-5 school in Chilmark.

But the task force - made up of community members and school leaders - also heard from a population they were particularly curious about: parents who chose not to send children to the little school at Beetlebung Corner. Last year, 26 students from Aquinnah and Chilmark opted to attend grade school at the West Tisbury School or the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School.

"We felt it was an excellent return rate," said task force chairman Susan Parker, who also serves as Chilmark's sole representative to the up-Island school committee. Chilmark School principal Carlos Colley could not be reached for comment this week.

A field director from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, James Hardy, assembled the data from the surveys.

The Chilmark School Task Force met with Mr. Hardy last week and is now drafting recommendations in time for a July 12 meeting of the up-Island school committee. That meeting will take place at 7 p.m. in Aquinnah, but a site for the school board meeting has not yet been determined.

One recommendation likely to surface next month is the creation of a preschool inside the building, a move aimed at luring up-Island families into the Chilmark School before they opt for another preschool setting further down-Island.

When parents of preschool-aged children were asked if they planned to enroll a child in the Chilmark School, 10 answered yes while 11 said they would not enroll their children in Chilmark when they reached kindergarten.

Nine families cited as reasons the simple fact that a sibling or friend was attending another school. Two respondents said a prior child enrolled in the Chilmark School was dissatisfied.

"We've made phenomenal progress on the preschool idea," said Ms. Parker. "There's no preschool in Chilmark or Aquinnah. We're thinking if we have the preschool, we could get families from Aquinnah to feel comfortable with the school. That's a big goal of ours."

Last year, 13 elementary-aged children from Aquinnah took the long commute to the West Tisbury School and the charter school rather than attending the Chilmark School.

Data from the survey offer insights into the up-Island community and their relationship with the small school.

Of the 58 respondents, 15 have children currently enrolled in the Chilmark School. But 19 families who took the time to answer the 26 questions on the survey - including four open-ended questions - never had children attend the school.

Nine respondents are still considering sending a child to the Chilmark School, and nine had children who attended the Chilmark School but did not graduate. And 15 of the families who returned a completed survey had children graduate from the school.

So, what did this cross-section of families have to say about the Chilmark School?

In the plus column, there were few surprises. Echoing the sentiments heard last winter at a forum held in the foyer of the Chilmark School, 13 families said they picked the school because of small class sizes. When asked to list assets of the school, 28 survey respondents cited student-teacher ratios and 13 people listed the "feeling of community" and the multi-age classroom as strong points.

The quality of the staff was also at the top of the list for 12 respondents.

Interestingly, an almost equal number of families - 10 in all - mentioned "staff concerns" when asked why their child did not attend or did not graduate from the Chilmark School.

Since classes are grouped into two grade levels, known as multi-aged classrooms, there are only three classroom teachers in the school. Ms. Parker acknowledged this arrangement can strike some parents as a limitation.

The data report from Mr. Hardy specifically mentions "number of staff - lack of options for parents" as a complaint.

Problems with communication and leadership also figured heavily on the list of concerns raised by families who filled out a survey. In less than 10 years, the school has seen four principals. Staff turnover has also dogged the Chilmark School: At least six full-time faculty members have left since 1998.

Ms. Parker said she shares concerns about communication not only between the school and its parents but also between the school and its district counterpart in West Tisbury, a much larger K-8 school.

"Families need to feel more comfortable that we're a region and that West Tisbury is an extension of our school," she said.

Ms. Parker also said that parents need to feel comfortable expressing their concerns to the school, its leadership and its teachers. "We need to find out how to channel concerns, maybe an ombudsman or a safe place where people feel they can get issues resolved," she said. "It's a small town."

While many survey respondents voiced confidence in the nurturing qualities of the Chilmark School - a safe and supportive atmosphere - Ms. Parker was worried when she saw the numbers who weren't satisfied with how the school articulates and promotes its mission.

Similarly high numbers - 13 in all - expressed dissatisfaction with how school leaders from the advisory council on up to the principal and Vineyard schools superintendent were doing in the realm of educational support and leadership for the students.

Ms. Parker said the school's vision needs to be sharpened. "Mr. Hardy urged [the task force] to decide what you want to do and do the best job of it," she said.

"People want to send their children to a neighborhood school, be a part of the community, and they like small classes," she added. "There's a lot of good here, and we need to pursue that."