By Rick Dandes
MILTON — The transition of 129 kindergarten through fifth-grade students from Montandon Elementary to Baugher Elementary was seamless, according to former Montandon teachers and the Milton Area School District superintendent.
“While I opposed the closure of the Montandon Elementary School,” said Leocadia Paliulis, a member of the Milton Area School Board, “I do feel that the district has done a really good job of merging the students from Montandon into Baugher.”
The closing of Montandon Elementary School was a complex process, including the legal steps to fulfill state-mandated Act 38, Section 780 requirements, said District Superintendent Cathy Keegan.
The transition process did not begin until the Milton Area School Board officially approved the closing of Montandon Elementary School on June 25.
A multitude of factors come into play when considering closing a school, the superintendent explained.
“Among other things, staffing, scheduling, parent outreach, transportation, vendor contracts, technology, payroll, maintenance expectations, and removal of building contents were closely studied,” Keegan said.
“Knowing the passion of our elementary school families, however, our administrative team gave great consideration to the positive and seamless transition of students to Baugher Elementary,” she said.
The district’s administrative team met regularly throughout the summer, updating the transition plan as new challenges and opportunities presented themselves.
Even before the formal approval, Director of Elementary Education Daphne Kirkpatrick said, “We looked closely at transportation, enrollment, and available space to provide the best information to the board and to answer questions about whether or not a consolidation was possible.”
They asked: What will transportation look like? Is there room at Baugher for the students? What would that look like?
The biggest challenges, Kirkpatrick said, were coordination of all the moving parts.
“To facilitate this process we created a transition plan,” she said. “Ongoing communication with everyone involved was a critical component. The transition plan enabled us to prioritize the moving parts and kept everyone on the same page with what needed to be completed first, second, and so on.”
Transportation was a bit of a challenge, Kirkpatrick said, “but in making the necessary changes with Montandon closing, it brought about a reconfiguration process on all the bus runs making them more efficient. Student ride times for those who would have attended Montandon increased by approximately 10 minutes. Students basically have their same drivers as in previous years.”
Administrators also created a new transportation dismissal procedure, Kirkpatrick said.
Buses are organized in the large parking lot beside the school and parents are separated from the bus traffic. Traffic in the morning is mixed and flows smoothly when parents use the entire length of the sidewalk when dropping off their children, she said. This enables a minimum of six to seven vehicles to drop off students at the same time making for a faster arrival time and little to no time waiting in line.
In all, 129 students transferred, six grade-level teachers, one special education teacher, one secretary, one custodian and two cafeteria workers.
Other individuals were itinerant staff who simply had their schedule adjusted, Kirkpatrick said.
“For example, specialist teachers traveling between three buildings, now work across two buildings. A reading specialist traveling between two buildings is now 100 percent at Baugher.
“There are two speech teachers and two guidance counselors at Baugher 100 percent of the time,” Kirkpatrick continued, “a dedicated guidance counselor at White Deer 100 percent of the time, and a principal who spends the majority of his time at White Deer. It has been beneficial for me that I get to spend more time at Baugher this year. In the past, I tried to offset Mr. (Philip) Heggenstaller’s schedule by spending time at Montandon when he was at White Deer or vice versa.”
Transferred students were able to tour Baugher as this school year began.
This past summer the school was not open until two weeks before the first day of school due to a sewer project, Kirkpatrick explained. “Before school started we held an open house on August 20 when students were able to meet their teacher, tour the school, ride the school bus, and had a picnic lunch. We had activities for the students.”
Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick commented on the controversies that had existed in the time leading up to the school board’s decision — questions such as the benefits of big vs. small schools, safety issues and transportation.
While closing a small school can create challenges and stir emotions, she said, it also provides opportunities.
At Milton, these opportunities include additional support possibilities for students in their home school, community connections and opportunities for more students to go on walking tours to visit places in town such as the Milton Library, local businesses, and events at the high school.
“I don’t think we had many students who struggled with the transition,” she said. “We have a good support system here, so if there were any struggles with students after school started I’m sure they were handled internally.
Teachers who were grade-level specific at Montandon last year are teaching the same grade level this year at Baugher. “So if they taught third grade at Montandon last year, they are teaching third grade this year here at Baugher. Teachers didn’t have to learn a new curriculum.”
Sean Marshall taught fifth grade in Montandon last year and teaches the same grade level at Baugher.
“In the transition to Baugher, I’ve had no issues,” Marshall said. “I thought it was pretty easy coming over here.”
Marshall taught at Baugher for 13 years before moving to Montandon for seven years. Now, he’s back at Baugher.
“There are no real differences in class size,” he said. “Some years you have 18 students, some years 25. That has nothing to do with what school you are in.”
Marshall said the Montandon students were well integrated in the classes he taught. “The transition has been seamless. I haven’t seen anybody having any problems. They’ve been handling the switch pretty well. Nobody has come to me with any issues such as interaction with other kids. They’ve met all new faces. They’ve mixed in well.”
First-grade teacher Katie Motto also said the student transition from Montandon has been “very smooth.”
Motto is in her fifth year in the Milton School District. “I don’t have any complaints. My team has been very welcoming. The administration has been helpful and supportive.
“The kids love being surrounded by new kids,” she said, “and seeing old friends. They have been doing really well.”
Kirkpatrick said the changes have made it easier for the school district to better balance class sizes.
“Six new students enrolling in kindergarten at Montandon has a huge impact on one teacher,” she said. “In comparison, six new students enrolling in kindergarten at Baugher is much different when you have six different classrooms.”
“We improved the quality of our services when reducing teacher and administrative travel time helped us to optimize instructional and support time. We created opportunities for teachers to connect with their grade-level teams on a more regular basis.”
Keegan said the district is proud of its educators, who accepted the opportunity to unify the schools and community.
“What was an emotional time for students, staff, and community members has proven a success,” she said. “Teachers have reunited with colleagues, students have met and made new friends. Simply put, our elementary community has become closer.”