Jefferson supporters pack consolidation meeting
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Emotions ran high Monday, Oct. 7, as teachers, parents and community members from Jefferson Elementary School came out to voice concerns about the proposal to possibly close the school and consolidate it with Fort Howard Elementary School, and repurpose the building into a west side Head Start location.
“I think Jefferson is worth fighting for,” said parent Melody Linsmeyer. “So I don’t care about your numbers, because I have a little school for my little family and teachers that care.”
On a busy night of topics, purple Jefferson Jaguar T-shirts filled the board room as people waited more than two hours for board members to weigh in on the issue.
“Research proves time and time again that small schools are what’s best for learning,” said Megan Jimenez, a fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson. “This bears repeating. Research proves time and time again that small schools are what’s best for students and their learning.”
Jefferson parent Gerald Synder has two daughters – his oldest attended Jefferson for kindergarten through fifth grade and his youngest is currently a second grader at the school.
“I can look out my living room window and see Jefferson,” Synder said. “Twelve years ago I bought my house for that reason.”
The topic was brought to the board table Monday as the district looks at a declining enrollment problem at west side schools.
Last spring, district families participated in a Redesign 2020 facilities survey focusing on district school capacities, enrollments and projections.
Regarding the survey question related to the consolidation and repurposing of west side schools – 18 percent strongly agreed, 51 percent agreed, 10 percent disagreed, nearly 5 percent strongly degree and 15 percent had no opinion or did not know.
While the survey mentioned consolidation and repurposing, no specifics about which schools would be impacted were included.
School board members then met with district administration at a retreat in July to discuss the survey results and began looking at addressing the inequities in enrollment and facilities across the district.
“There has been conversation around how this came to be,” said board member Rhonda Sitnikau. “On July 11, we came to this room for a board-superintendent retreat with no idea really what we were going to speak to. We were given a piece of paper with about 10 considerations on it and it was titled Redesign 2020. And I remember raising my hand and I said ‘Where did these considerations come from? Where were they discussed and who discussed them?’”
She said she didn’t know enough specific details about Jefferson at the time of the July 11 meeting to comment that day.
“As it was mentioned, schools are more than numbers and figures,” Sitnikau said. “It is about relationships and families and staff that is committed. We didn’t talk about any of that.”
Sitnikau said the next time she heard about the issue was about two weeks ago when the parent informational meetings were announced.
“I was pretty surprised myself to hear that the conversation was already happening in general,” she said. “I would have loved to have known a bit more. Maybe there were conversations that happened. I’m not sure. I was not part of those.”
Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld said many times Monday the district is in the preliminary stages of the discussion.
“We are in the exploratory phase, so we don’t have all the answers, because if we had all the answers, then it would be done,” Langenfeld said. “This is a personal discussion no matter where you have it.”
Though he still has unanswered questions, Board Vice President Andrew Becker said he is open to exploring the options.
“This is just how the process works,” Becker said. “Even mentioning it is something where people are going to get nervous and feelings are going to get hurt. But at this point, I am still open-minded to options and listening and hearing what people have to say. I certainly think it’s okay that we are here with this discussion right now.”
Currently, 115 students are enrolled at Jefferson, which has a capacity of 165. Forty-three Jefferson attendance area students choose to attend another district school or a parochial school.
Over the last five years, enrollment at Jefferson has seen a continuous decline.
Neighboring west side schools Fort Howard and Elmore have also seen consistent decline in enrollment after the last five years.
All 4K students from Jefferson and Fort Howard currently attend school at Cornerstone Encompass.
“When you consolidate a school you have the opportunity to not only have more resources for children than in smaller schools, you can leverage those,” Langenfeld said.
Head Start is a federally-funded program.
A $2 million per-year continuing grant includes funds to renovate a district facility into a Head Start Learning Center, similar to what was done on the east side.
Currently, all Head Start students are bussed separately to Keller Elementary School and Southwest High School.
Staff say moving the Head Start program to Jefferson would provide a central location for the program.
District staff held two parent informational meetings on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 to provide background, discuss enrollment numbers and provide an opportunity for parents to give the board feedback.
“Many of our students come from high poverty and/or trauma, so Jefferson leads with love,” Jimenez said. “We have been told that the district formula is based on numbers, but, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Jefferson is too important to lose.”
Synder shared the same concerns.
“Living in the neighborhood, I know some of these kids,” Synder said. “Some of these kids do not have a parent at all. They are living with a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle. And I’ve heard it said that this is a problem throughout the city, and yes, anywhere you go in the city you are going to find that. But these are the kids you are looking to move out of their school, not the rest of the city. These kids are the ones you are talking about possibly moving them somewhere else. These kids are the ones that you are talking about taking away the stability they have.”
Trustees will discuss the topic again at their meeting Monday, Oct. 21, deciding at that point if they would like to continue exploring the possibility.
Board members asked staff to bring additional information to that meeting, including additional options for the Head Start program and looking at what has been done, or could be done, to increase enrollment at Jefferson.
“Whatever we decide to do, I really believe you all, staff, teachers, need to be as close to this decision making as possible,” said board member Kristina Shelton. “I would really like to hear you all tell us what is going to work well for your students. However, that looks if we do move into Fort Howard or not, you know your students and you know how those decisions will affect them.”