Derry Man Questions Capacity Gap in Derry Schools

A Derry resident is contesting the latest enrollment data, in particular for “capacity,” in the seven K-8 schools for the district.

Mark Grabowski, a former Derry School Board member, spoke to the issue of potentially “undercrowded” schools at the Sept. 9 School Board meeting.

Grabowski challenged the “capacity” column in the enrollment spreadsheet and asked the School District to reduce class numbers and, if possible, find out where those Derry kids are going instead of to public school.

The current enrollment for all Derry students, Kindergarten-Grade 8 and Pinkerton Academy, is 5,369. That is down 90 students from 2013-14’s 5,459, according to Grabowski. Referring to a space needs study currently in progress and due to finish in October, Grabowski said, “The last one was in 2009. I’m glad you’re doing this.”

In the “predicted enrollment’ section of the 2009 study, the K-8 enrollment for 2014 was projected as 3,345. It is currently 3,395, off by only 50 students, Grabowski pointed out. Over those five years, the total K-8 population has declined by 1,000 students, he said.

“And the study shows that over the next five years, the trend is continuing,” Grabowski said.

Within his oldest son’s grade, he said, his son has lost four friends, classmates or teammates to charter schools just this year, he said.

Grabowski and other parents have been critical of the School Board’s decision to move the Next Charter School to West Running Brook Middle School and DEEP (Derry Early Education Program) back into its former quarters at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School. Based on the enrollment data, he said, “There should not have been any urgent decisions made.”

The board voted in a July 18 meeting to move Next to West Running Brook, after a presentation by Principal Leslie Saucier, who said her facility could handle it. The board voted to send DEEP back to Gilbert H. Hood, in order to give the preschoolers enough room and relieve crowding at Grinnell Elementary School, its former host.

Grabowski asked the board and administration if they had any idea how many children in Derry do not attend the public schools. Superintendent Laura Nelson said she had no way of tracking that data. Some home-schooled students register locally because their parents want to be part of the community, she said, but others register directly with the state.

Grabowski referred to a “trend” away from Derry public schools, noting that of the 90 students the district has lost, 80 left in K-8 compared to only 10 from Pinkerton Academy. “There is an indication kids are pulling away from Derry public schools, and I hope the new report will pull that out,” Grabowski said.

“If parents don’t tell us, there is no way to track that,” Nelson responded.

Grabowski pointed to the “capacity” column at the left of the enrollment report, including the following:

• Ernest P. Barka Elementary School, enrollment 586, capacity 700;

• Derry Village Elementary School, enrollment 439, capacity 670;

• East Derry Memorial Elementary School, enrollment 380, capacity 600;

• Grinnell Elementary School, enrollment 398, capacity 600;

• South Range Elementary School, enrollment 351, capacity 525;

• Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, enrollment 693, capacity 1,100; and

• West Running Brook Middle School, enrollment 548, capacity 750.

According to Grabowski’s calculations, Barka is running at 83 percent capacity; Derry Village, 66 percent; East Derry, 63 percent; Grinnell, 66 percent; South Range, 67 percent; Hood, 73 percent, including 110 children in DEEP; and West Running Brook, 79 percent, including 45 Next students. With 3,550 students including DEEP and Next and a capacity for 4,945, Grabowski said, the district facilities were running at 72 percent capacity.

“This is a huge weight on the community and taxpayers,” he said.

“Your enrollment report is a powerful document and should be considered in making decisions,” Grabowski said.

Board member Dan McKenna also had concerns about kindergarten enrollment. When Simard gave a report on enrollment for full-day kindergarten, she noted that Derry Village School had nine openings in one session and four in the other; Barka, one opening in each of the two sessions; and South Range, four openings.

“Have we considered not running one of the full-day sessions?” McKenna asked. “For example, Derry Village has nine openings.”

Simard said people were still coming in to register their children for kindergarten, and they could still fill up.

“We did, as an administrative team, look at the numbers,” Nelson said. But condensing a kindergarten unit would run the risk of crowding the other kindergarten programs, she said. In particular, she said, enrollment has increased in DEEP from 78 last year to 110 this year, and DEEP is a source of students for the kindergarten.

“I do not want to diminish the importance of kindergarten,” McKenna said. “But in the past, we’ve talked about not running classes that are not full.”

Nelson said kindergarten enrollment will be part of the budget talks beginning in October.