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Article updated: 7/25/2012 2:58 PM

Millburn West to become middle school, Central to become elementary school

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For the first time, all Millburn Elementary District 24 students in the same grade level will attend the same school, officials said.

Starting this school year, instead of having two K-8 schools, the district will convert Millburn Central to a K-5 elementary school and Millburn West to a grade 6 to 8 middle school.

"This is a very big change for our community," Superintendent Jason Lind said. The district's school year begins Aug. 23.

The main reason for the switch, Lind said, was to improve balance in class sizes across the schools.

For example, in the 2011-12 school year, there was one section of 35 students in kindergarten at Millburn West, while Millburn Central had four sections of about 24 students each. Had the two schools been combined, the average class size would have shrunk to 26. Lind said the ideal class size is around 20 students and even less for kindergarten through fifth grade.

The new configuration will allow the schools to more effectively distribute resources, resulting in an estimated $225,000 savings. Lind said four duplicate faculty positions were cut.

The grade configuration issue surfaced during a community engagement day in May 2010. In August 2011, the district formed a facilities and finance subcommittee of parents, teachers and administrators to focus on the issue.

The group began meeting in September, and that month, community forums were held. Tammy Harris, co-chair of the committee and parent in the district, said that despite opposition, the decision came down to an issue of equality.

With financial decisions such as hiring or laying off a teacher, the positive or negative impact was only being felt by the students of that building.

"That's not fair," Harris said. "It's one district, and we have to really do what's best for all the students as a whole."

Teachers of the same grade levels will now be able to more easily collaborate and more profoundly benefit the entire district, she said.

One example is last year's combined school sports program. While it provided enough students to field teams, the district had to bus students between schools for practices and games, Harris said.

Harris and Lind noted that parents were divided on the configuration issue. Mostly, she said, it was the tight-knit feel of a K-8 school that many parents liked.

Some worried about splitting up siblings and a decline in parent volunteerism. Other parents were happy because their younger students felt more comfortable with students closer to their age.

"The intangible issues, the nonfinancial issues, had pros and cons on every point," Harris said.

After much research and many cost-benefit analyses, the final decision was made in December. Other than planning, Lind said not much will change on the administrative side.

"There's a lot of details with the logistics of changing schools but nothing unusual," he said. "We work on that every summer anyway -- bus schedules, class schedules, teacher schedules."

Lind said he hopes the move will improve the learning atmosphere at both schools.

"Our entire Millburn community will have a common experience in the educational process," he said. "The students will get the same services and the same opportunities across the district, (and) they'll get to have more opportunities to develop more friendships."

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