SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 21, 2013

Beverly welcomes choice students

Despite overcrowding, schools still have room in some grade levels

BY PAUL LEIGHTON
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — The Beverly Public School district is seeking students from other communities even as officials cite “severe overcrowding” as a reason it needs a new middle school.

The district sent out a press release last month announcing that it is accepting letters of request to enroll in Beverly through the school choice program, which allows parents to send their children to schools in other communities.

At the same time, officials are planning to cite “severe overcrowding” in their application to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for funding for a new middle school.

School districts can choose not to participate in school choice, but the Beverly School Committee has voted for the past several years to take part in the program, which the state began in 1991.

School Committee President Maria Decker acknowledged that an overcrowded school district accepting out-of-town students seems like an “oxymoron.” But she said school administrators will accept school choice students only in grades where they will not push class sizes over the limit.

“The administration looks at it and says, ‘We have room with this group of students to take a handful of students and will not make the classroom size excessive,’” Decker said.

Beverly has 66 school choice students in its schools this year, according to figures from the Massachusetts Department of Education. Tuition must be paid by the students’ home districts, so Beverly is receiving $356,179 in tuition, an average of $5,397 per student, according to the state.

Decker said the extra revenue in some cases can allow the high school to add another session of a particular class to accommodate more students, thus reducing class sizes.

Mayor Bill Scanlon said bringing in school choice students enables the district to add revenue “without adding any costs.”

As for reconciling overcrowded schools with accepting out-of-town students, Scanlon said, “One is at a macro level, and the other is at a micro level.”

Decker said money is not the main reason the School Committee votes to accept school choice students. The total cost of educating a student is around $13,000, well over the $5,000 for school choice students.

“The revenue is nice ... but the main reason is to share the wonderful things we have going on in Beverly that makes us such a magnet,” she said.

Decker said the district is not accepting kindergarten students from other communities because there is no room at that level. The district also did not accept seventh-graders for this school year because that class is particularly large.

If a particular grade was in line to have smaller class sizes than recommended under guidelines set by the School Committee, administrators might add school choice students at that level, Decker said.

“If the class size was 19, we could add one or two to each of those sections,” she said. “A class size of 20 or 21 won’t negatively affect students, but at the same time, it brings in $5,000 for each student.

“We would never do anything to hurt the students in Beverly because they are our first priority,” she added.

While Beverly is taking in 66 students this school year, it is losing 72 students to other districts. Beverly is paying $384,520 in school choice tuition for those students.

Beverly has narrowed the gap between the number of school choice students it gains and loses. In 2009, it was losing 50 more students than it was taking in.

Officials attribute that trend to improvements in the Beverly schools, including construction of the new high school.

Beverly is planning to build a new middle school at the site of the Memorial Building on Cabot Street. Officials invited State Treasurer Steven Grossman to tour Briscoe Middle School last week to see firsthand the poor condition of the building and the overcrowding.

Grossman oversees the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which approves state aid for school building projects. Beverly applied for funding last year but was asked to reapply this year. Officials plan to add “severe overcrowding” as one of the justifications for a new school.

Officials are seeking a middle school for grades five through eight, which they say is better academically and will also free up space in the elementary schools, which now house fifth-graders.

Scanlon said in his State of the City speech this week that he expects the city and state to conduct a feasibility study this year. He said the study will determine whether to upgrade and enlarge the Memorial Building or build an entirely new school on the site.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.