Sunday, May 22, 2016

Winchester School Board to host forum Wednesday on high school options

By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff
WINCHESTER — Two area high schools will make their pitches to local parents and students next week, as school officials and residents continue to mull whether Keene High School is the best option for the town’s teenagers. A public forum for residents to discuss and participate in the proposals from the Keene and Pioneer Valley Regional school districts will be held at the Winchester School Wednesday, beginning at 6 p.m.
Pioneer Valley is a regional school district covering the Masschusetts towns of Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. Its district offices and high school are in Northfield, which abuts Winchester. The high school enrollment for this school year is 428 students in grades 7 to 12, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Rick Horton, Winchester School Board chairman, said Friday that officials from the two districts will give presentations about their respective high schools’ course offerings and curriculum from 6 to 7 p.m. Then, at 7 p.m., the school board will open up a comment session to listen to what residents have to say about the proposals and any other remarks or questions they may have about high school options for students, he said. Some financial information will also be presented, he said, including some rough numbers on what it would cost to reopen the town’s Thayer High School and staff it.
Winchester has been sending its high school students to school in Keene since 2003, but residents and Winchester school officials have questioned in recent years if it’s the best option.
“I think ultimately it would be in our students’ best interests, and the district’s best interest, to offer some options, and we’re not in that situation right now,” Horton said.
It’s not just about costs, but also how students feel in certain environments, and what opportunities are available to them, he said.
Winchester is more than halfway through a 20-year contract with the Keene School District to send the town’s students to Keene High School for grades 9 through 12.
School officials signed the contract after Winchester voters approved a warrant article to close Thayer High School and send students who would have gone there to Keene. Thayer High School closed in 2005.
Winchester pays tuition for its students to attend Keene High School.
That tuition started at $7,800 per regular education student, and has risen annually, as has the cost per special education student.
This school year, Winchester is paying about $13,000 per regular education student, and about $29,000 per special education student. About 180 Winchester students attend the Keene school.
The increasing cost of tuition is among the concerns residents and school officials have expressed about Winchester students attending Keene High School.
They have also said they’ve been frustrated by the lack of information about how Winchester students are doing as a group at the high school, and students losing their sense of community because they’re leaving a small, tight-knit school to attend a high school about 30 minutes away that has a much larger student population.
The enrollment at Keene High School for this school year is 1,363, according to the N.H. Department of Education.
Three hundred and ninety-eight students attend Winchester School in grades preschool through 8, the state agency said.
Besides Winchester, the towns of Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson, Stoddard, Sullivan, Surry and Westmoreland send their high school students to Keene. Keene High School’s enrollment is mostly made up of students from Keene.
The majority of voters participating in the annual Winchester School District meeting in 2012 approved an advisory-only petition warrant article to study withdrawing students from Keene High School, and either sending them to a reopened Thayer High School, or a high school elsewhere.
In 2014, the committee formed to study those options presented a report to the Winchester School Board recommending that the local school board tell the Keene school district it’s unhappy with the arrangement, and that it will continue looking into other options for its high school students. The school board agreed with the report.
Last year, Winchester voters approved a warrant article, 374 to 269, at the school district’s annual meeting stating that it was not in the town’s best interest to tuition its high school students to Keene.
Besides Keene and Pioneer Valley Regional high schools, Winchester school officials have toured Brattleboro Union and Monadnock Regional high schools as part of studying their options for tuitioning students, Horton said.
About 1,000 students in grades 7 through 12 attend Brattleboro Middle School and Union High School from that town and several others surrounding it.
Monadnock Regional Middle/High School is in Swanzey, and besides that town, covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury and Troy. At one time, it was part of the same school administrative unit as Winchester and Hinsdale, but the union dissolved in 2010.
Monadnock covers grades 7 through 12, and has a student enrollment of 775, according to the N.H. Department of Education
There has been no further conversations about Brattleboro or Monadnock, Horton said.
School officials have also discussed sending students to Hinsdale High School, according to previous Sentinel reports.
However, Hinsdale school officials said at the time they wouldn’t be able to take on the additional students because there wasn’t enough space at the high school for them.
“Really this is about looking at options for kids, not about ‘is one better than the other.’ These are some options kids can have,” Horton said. “We tend to put them all in one box when possibly there could be more options as each one learns differently.”

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