Jenkintown sees big plus in its tiny school district

Jenkintown Elementary School is one of just two schools in the district. Amid talk of consolidation, Jenkintown has fought to keep its small classes and long-standing traditions.
Jenkintown Elementary School is one of just two schools in the district. Amid talk of consolidation, Jenkintown has fought to keep its small classes and long-standing traditions. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 18, 2014

JENKINTOWN In the tiny Montgomery County borough of Jenkintown, parents and teachers jokingly call it "the C word."

Allison Giffords, president of the Home and School Association in the Jenkintown School District, heard it again recently, albeit indirectly. A resident attending a basketball game encountered someone from a neighboring district who "heard we were going to be consolidated," she recalled.

"I said, 'Really?' "

In Jenkintown, one of the state's smallest districts with just more than 600 students and a mere two schools, talk of joining forces with a larger neighbor is a tradition that dates at least to the 1950s.

Residents of the borough, which straddles Route 611 and packs roughly 4,500 people into about a half square mile, have been fighting for decades to preserve their district against the pressures of consolidation, a national mantra held up as an antidote to rising costs and taxes.

As consolidation talk has continued in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Jenkintown has battled to keep its small class sizes and long-standing traditions, such as graduation with boys in tuxedos and girls in long white dresses - and has won every time.

With the help of a Jenkintown alumnus in the legislature, the district survived the most recent call for sweeping school consolidation, from Gov. Ed Rendell in 2009. Now district leaders say they're optimistic they won't be hearing "the C word" for years to come outside of stray gymnasium gossip.

They argue the numbers show that their school system - with just 40 to 60 pupils in each grade, and where the principals know every student by name - is working just fine.

Beyond statistics

With at least 90 percent of graduates bound for college every year, Jenkintown ranked 20th out of the state's 500 school districts in SAT scores in 2013, with an average tally of 1652 on the three sections, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

But enthusiasm among Jenkintown parents and teachers goes well beyond the statistics. They rave about the ability to raise children in a small community where every student still walks to school and where the captain of the football team has a chance to win a big part in the high school musical as well.

"If you don't like teaching here, you don't like teaching," said high school English instructor Richard Hench, who is in his 41st year with Jenkintown, and who at 67 has no interest in retiring. He loves the nurturing environment, noting that occasionally he's had a student for all four years. "In much larger schools, it's more of a factory assembly line," he said.

Nevertheless, proposals to merge Jenkintown with the much larger districts that border it - Abington and Cheltenham - go back more than half a century. In 1955, a state-mandated consolidation pared the number of Pennsylvania districts from 2,700 to roughly 600, yet Jenkintown won an exemption because of its stellar academic record.

Former State Rep. Larry Curry, who graduated from Jenkintown in 1952, remembers talk of consolidation when he was a student. Five years ago, when Curry was a Democratic legislator in Harrisburg, he said he lobbied against it, asking Rendell to explain why merging districts would be a good idea for Jenkintown students.

Nationally, school district consolidations have continued in recent years but at a much slower pace than the wave of mergers in the late 20th century. Philadelphia's neighboring counties still have several districts with fewer than 2,500 students - the median is about 4,500 pupils - including the School District of Springfield Township in Montgomery County. At least one in Bucks County, tiny Morrisville, has sought a merger, without success.

Though saving money - typically by closing older schools and reducing administrative overlap - has been the primary goal of consolidation, several analyses in recent years have found that the actual saving proved to be minimal, and that residents in districts that were eliminated complained of a loss of community.

Noting that many organizations and Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder whose philanthropy has focused on education, have looked at consolidation, Jenkintown Superintendent Timothy Wade said: "When you get down to it, the research tends to say the smaller the school the better."

Pay for success

That doesn't mean keeping the district independent has been easy. The biggest issue in Jenkintown - an older, densely populated landlocked suburb with no space for new development - has been avoiding property-tax hikes.

Taxes rose just 1.43 percent this year, but in the previous 10 years, they had risen more than 55 percent, according to an Inquirer analysis.

Residents evidently are willing to pay a premium for success, however. Wade recalled how when he spoke at Beaver Hill Condominiums, where many residents are older, "I thought I'd get beaten up. . . . But they ended up saying, 'We don't mind paying if it's something that gives us value.' "

The district has won over many elderly residents by lending equipment for meetings and offering perks such as computer literacy classes.

The district has been able to offer expanded benefits to its students as well. It began full-day kindergarten in 2007 and provides Chromebook computers to students in grades five through 12. A few years back, the district spent $13 million to $14 million on a building linking the elementary and middle/high schools so students wouldn't have to cross a small street.

Kathleen Geer, a former president of the Home and School Association who has children in 10th, seventh, and fifth grades, said smaller class sizes were definitely an asset. Her 10th grader's journalism class has just five students.

"The teachers can really know the kids and help them . . . and just understand them better," Geer said.

Yet Geer and others concede tininess has downsides. The small size of each grade can present social challenges. Scheduling Advanced Placement courses can be difficult, and some sports activities, such as boys' soccer, can't be offered simply because of the lack of students.

But most agree less has been more for Jenkintown, and they plan to keep things that way.

"There's a couple of upsides to a small school - the hands-on kind of communication level you have with students," said Tom Roller, principal of the middle/high school. "I know every single one of my students - first name, last name, I know what they do, know many of their families. You really get to build a sense of community and understanding."

610-313-8232    @kathyboccella

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