Cheltenham relishes school realignment

Posted: June 12, 2014

A silver lining has emerged from the moldy walls of Cheltenham's Cedarbrook Middle School: an accelerated and harmonious decision to realign the district's primary grades.

Cedarbrook was abandoned in March after it was found to be wracked by mold and uninhabitable. That decision came after seven months of debate that pitted neighbor against neighbor, and a plan that many called the least bad option.

At the end of that tumultuous year, parents, teachers, and administrators agreed that the new middle school should be built to accommodate not only grades seven and eight, but also five and six.

Discussions about demographics and grade alignment have been on the district's to-do list for years. But Cedarbrook's demise brought greater urgency and a belief that with change comes opportunity.

"Nobody shoots for world-class middle grades, but we will. We can make a facility that is special and tailored for students at those development levels," Superintendent Natalie Thomas said. "The whole Cedarbrook thing has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise."

The new alignment, which won unanimous board approval Tuesday night, means students will change schools three times, instead of the current four.

Districts have been moving away from the four-tier model because research shows that "transitions are detrimental to students," said Dwight Nolt, Cheltenham's director of education. Test scores go down, he said, and "it takes about a year for them to come back from it."

Parents are not always swayed by such research.

In Ambler last year, parents filed lawsuits and cried in public meetings when the Wissahickon School Board voted to close Mattison Avenue Elementary School. The school was large enough to take students only through third grade, after which they had to switch to one of the district's kindergarten-through-fifth-grade schools.

But in Cheltenham, parents clapped and cheered when Thomas asked if they supported the change.

"Of course cost is always a concern. We own a house here, and taxes are really high," said Trish Dougherty, a mother of three. "But it's not avoidable. We need a new school, and I want it to be top-quality, for my kids and for the kids that are coming up after them."

Since the district already has to spend the time and money rebuilding Cedarbrook, Thomas said she did not expect the realignment to be costly.

And if enrollment does not increase significantly - a 2014 demographic study projected 1 to 10 percent more students over the next decade - Nolt said the district might be able to save money by getting rid of Elkins Park Elementary, the current fifth- and sixth-grade campus and the last school in need of renovation.

That could be a welcome development in a district that had the region's fourth-highest school taxes this year, and faces a 3.26 percent tax increase next year.

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

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