Task Force Team Presents Chilmark Preschool Plan to Bolster Enrollments

By CHRIS BURRELL

Armed with the results of an anonymous survey that praised the Chilmark School for it small class sizes and strong sense of community but was critical of its leadership, communication and staff turnover, the chairman of a fledgling school task force unveiled a report last night, urging regional school board members to take action on more than a dozen areas of concern.

Chief among those recommendations, presented last night at a meeting of the Up-Island Regional School Committee in the Aquinnah town hall, is the creation of a preschool inside the Chilmark School building, a move aimed at creating a feeder program into the school where enrollment has been lagging.

But the draft report from task force chairman Susan Parker also targeted management and staffing concerns as issues needing special attention.

"These are jumping off points. The recommendations from the task force come from the [survey] data and from conversations among the task force," said Mrs. Parker, who is also Chilmark's representative to the Up-Island regional school board.

While the school committee took no official action on the report, it informally backed the concept of a privately-run preschool while asking numerous questions about funding the program, leasing an available classroom in the building and how it would mesh with the K-5 program already in place.

"The private model as a way to try it out and get it going is appealing," said school board chairman Kathy Logue.

The preschool idea is spearheaded by a smaller steering committee from the 12-member task force, a group made up of residents from Aquinnah and Chilmark.

The task force was formed last March in the face of increasing political pressure on the school, where enrollment had fallen to just 46 students and costs rose to more than $20,000 per pupil. Projected enrollment for September stands at 56 students.

Spurred by concerns over cuts in state educational aid, finance committee members from West Tisbury - one of the member towns in the up-Island school region - began pressing Chilmark leaders to bear more of the costs in the district and to consider closing down the school altogether.

Chilmark selectmen, along with school leaders, rejected that idea and rallied behind their small school. But they also appointed a school task force, charging them with investigating the reasons behind low enrollment and conceiving ways to boost it.

The survey marked a first step. Mailed out in May, it went to 103 families with children ages three to 14, nearly all of them in the towns of Aquinnah and Chilmark. Of the 58 responses, 36 came from families who had enrolled a child at the Chilmark School in the last three years.

The majority 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.

Last night, Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash stressed that the survey results should not be viewed as a report card on the school.

"It's not an evaluative tool," he said, "but it's directional and helpful input."

Chilmark School principal Carlos Colley did not attend last night's meeting because he was celebrating his wedding anniversary, Mr. Cash said.

But among the draft recommendations in the task force report, one calls for addressing leadership and management issues and the need to study models for a principal who also takes on teaching duties.

The survey results showed some parents were dissatisfied with communication and leadership. The school has seen four principals in less than 10 years. Staff turnover has also posed a challenge: Six full-time faculty members have left since 1998.

Of the surveys returned, 13 were not satisfied with the job school leaders from the advisory council on up to the Mr. Colley and Mr. Cash were doing in the realm of educational support for students.

While short on specifics, the report did express the task force's displeasure with "comments from school officials which are inappropriately negative."

Last fall, Mr. Cash made a comment at a regional high school committee about whether a school with such low enrollment as Chilmark's could be considered a real school.

The report also recommends looking into how discipline issues are handled at the school and ensuring that a multi-aged and project-based curriculum is also academically solid and challenging.

The report called for school leaders to conduct routine exit interviews with students and staff who leave the school.

But much of the discussion of last night's meeting focused less on the issue of students leaving the school and more on the need to lure youngsters into the building.

Task force member Alicia Knight made her pitch to school board members to support the establishment of a preschool in an unused classroom in the Chilmark School.

Their vision is a private preschool staffed with two teachers and enrollment of 12 children, ranging from just under three to five years of age.

"We've surveyed a lot of families, and they're really interested in a preschool up-Island," Ms. Knight told the school committee last night.

Mr. Cash said he favored a public preschool, but other school board members agreed it would be more expedient to let a private group take it over in the short term.

"They want to start this year," said school committee member Roxanne Ackerman of Aquinnah. "Instead of throwing roadblocks, let's be proactive."

School board members raised numerous questions about the proposal that ranged from absorbing shared costs and scholarships to the issue of bathrooms and additional noise in the school.

Ms. Knight will come back to the school committee in August with answers. Meanwhile, her steering committee is hiring a lawyer and forming a preschool board of directors that can operate as a nonprofit group, accepting charitable donations.

The school committee will take up the task force report and its recommendations at its next meeting.