Hillside mulls reconfiguring schools by grade

Photo by Liv Meier
Acting Superintendent Debra Sheard addresses the Hillside school board at its March 21 meeting about reconfiguring several schools by grade to adjust for space requirements.

HILLSIDE, NJ — The school district is looking to reconfigure the Hurden Looker, Calvin Coolidge and George Washington schools so that each includes grades two through six in the fall. The Grade Reconfiguration Committee proposed the change to the local Board of Education at its March 21 meeting, saying it would benefit students, teachers and parents throughout the district.

The current system has students switching schools up to five times, starting off at the AP Morris Early Childhood Center through the completion of first grade, then to Calvin Coolidge Elementary for second grade, Hurden Looker Elementary for third and fourth grades, George Washington Elementary for fifth and sixth grades, and then to the middle school until eighth grade and then to Hillside High School.

“We’re running into a situation where we are running out of space in the district and we have to really begin to think about how we’re going to grow,” Acting Superintendent Debra Sheard said at the meeting.

“The bottom line is, we’re trying to get onto that pathway to excellence and we want to make sure that by having these grades two through six schools, all students are going to receive the same quality of instruction,” she added.
Committee member Sharon Festante, who is the principal of George Washington Elementary School, told the BOE and parents in attendance that the three schools will have identical academic programs and that the reconfiguration is an opportunity to have “better activity coordination.”

“We want to keep all the three schools as equitable as possible,” she said. “In a community, you want to have schools that are equitable and that are all high performing and feeding high achieving academic students into the middle school and high school. That’s what’s going to improve the town.”

The district would be broken up into three zones based on population, ethnicity and race so that all three schools are in “equal proportion on all these levels,” according to the committee.

The school day will begin at 8:35 a.m. and end at 2:55 p.m. at all three schools and busing will be available for students who live more than two miles away from the school. All students will wear uniforms — navy shirts and khaki pants — beginning in the 2020-21 school year, with current uniforms remaining in place for next year since many parents have already purchased them.

According to Hurden Looker Principal Tracey Wolff, one benefit of the new system is that siblings would be able to attend the same school from second to sixth grade, offering easier transportation and scheduling for parents. And the Stepping Stones Aftercare program will still be available at all three schools, Sheard said.

J’ne Brathwaite, the committee’s parent liaison and president of the Hurden Looker PTA, said the reconfiguration is be the “best decision” for the district.
“As a parent, we don’t have to go to three different schools every morning and with this, our events will finally be consistent,” she said.

The committee has not calculated the financial impact that adopting the plan would have on the district, but committee member Angela Lawler said resources, such as desks and books, will have to be moved and the district could hire student custodians during the summer months.

BOE Vice President Kim Cook, a graduate of Hillside High School, expressed her support for the reconfiguration, saying that while she was a student in the district kindergarten through eighth grade were housed inside the same building.

“I think in the long run, this will be a positive move for our township and our district,” Cook said in her closing comments.

BOE member Hawaiian Thompson-Epps said that more public presentations should be conducted so that parents don’t feel blindsided by the change. Sheard said that each of the schools will likely hold individual forums.
The BOE will have to vote to approve the final re-configuration, and a date for that vote has not yet been scheduled.

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