As happens every year, registration is open for new students in WSSD. This is only for students newly arrived in the district or 5-6 year olds entering school for the first time, returning students don’t re-register. However, this year I’ve heard that there’s an unexpected problem. As noted on the registration page, the first grade classes at WES are at capacity, and the district is diverting further students to the other elementary schools. This issue was raised at the June board meeting by two parents, you can listen to the first here.
The parents most affected (besides new residents, who presumably will be surprised by this introduction to the district) appear to be those that opted to send their children to private, full day kindergarten. 428 of 500 school districts in PA offer full day kindergarten so WSSD is in the decided minority with half day kindergarten. Full day kindergarten is known to be greatly beneficial. Since WSSD does not offer it, full day kindergarten is only available to those with the means to attend private school, making this yet another equity issue for the district.
This is not the first time a capacity issue has happened in the district recently. A few years ago, the district asked some parents in the Pine and Park Ridge areas to consider moving from SRS to WES as SRS was full and some of those areas switched. The district held meetings and apparently school tours to convince residents to sign on for the change – which some did. In contrast, this time the decision seems to have been made with little to no consultation. And, unfortunately, because there is no July meeting of the school board and they went to only one meeting a month this year, there will not another board meeting held until August 22nd when it is likely too late to change course (unless the board holds a special meeting).
The last time there were capacity issues (that I’m aware of), the school district opted to switch a neighborhood from one elementary school to the other. I’m not clear if the maps (WES and SRS) are up to date so I’m not sure if the neighborhoods were switched for only one class year or if they remain switched to this day. Unfortunately the Swarthmorean archives for that period are not available and the school district does not maintain online board archives past 2019. And, as this decision will be made within a month or two, spending 4-5 months getting another open records request denied is not practical either. I reached out to a board member, who has not responded yet (I’ll update this if I hear anything).
This year’s solution seems illogical. At the last count I heard 9 students, almost half a class of 1st graders, are to be bussed from WES to other schools (I’ve heard SRS, I’m not sure if any will be sent to NPE also). This will necessitate special bus routes to pick up these 9 children scattered throughout the WES area. One parent at the last board meeting was told her child’s bus route would take 45 minutes each way, which is absurd in a district you could walk across in that time. It can’t possibly be good for the children either, being the only ones in their neighborhoods (and possibly family) attending a different school.
The recurring capacity problems are likely not due to an expanding population, but rather statistical fluctuations in class size from year to year. In the 1990 census, Nether Providence’s population was 13,229 with 23.4% under 18 years old. In the 2020 ACS, the population was 14,525 with 23.6% of the population under 18. Ten percent growth over 30 years seems like a manageable growth rate. In that time the schools have made several expansions to accommodate this growth.
This coming year, the district will create a new strategic plan. The district has spent the last several years suffering from the results of poor decisions made long ago – such as the decision to rebuild WES too small in a lot that was too small. As a result, the district lacks the flexibility to adjust to the natural ebb and flow of class sizes and its too-small fields have to be carefully (and expensively) managed. Hopefully when the district creates its new strategic plan it gives thought to the space it needs to educate all children more equitably.
Update (3 Aug) – I’ve heard from a school board member that a new 1st grade class at WES has opened up, so there will be space for all the first graders.