Advice for LI districts wrestling with school closures

Half Hollow Hills School Board President James Ptucha,

Half Hollow Hills School Board President James Ptucha, left, answers questions regarding the closing of two schools in the district during a PTA meeting at the Chestnut Hill Elementary school. (Nov. 4, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Educators and parents in districts that have closed schools in recent years have this advice for their counterparts in Half Hollow Hills facing the same situation: Efficient and thoughtful transition, openness from district leaders, and empathy for those struggling with the changes are essential.

"There is no way to remove emotion from a school closing," said Mineola Superintendent Michael Nagler, whose district closed one elementary school in 2011 and another last year. "You must have patience, you must have listening and transparency and at least the rationale about why you are doing things, and present the data."

Half Hollow Hills is the latest Long Island district to wrestle with the prospect of school closures driven by declining enrollment and budget squeezes. In addition to Mineola, the Baldwin, Lindenhurst and North Bellmore districts all have closed elementary schools since June 2011.


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Enrollments falling

The trend is largely driven by drops in the number of younger students, which has occurred in more than 70 of the Island's 124 public school districts over the past six years, according to a Newsday data analysis earlier this year.

The Half Hollow Hills school board voted unanimously Oct. 28 to close Chestnut Hill and Forest Park elementary schools in Dix Hills at the end of the school year, citing enrollment declines. Since then, parents have packed board meetings, questioning the decision to close those particular schools.

The vote came after a board-appointed facilities committee, composed mostly of residents, had undertaken a study and ultimately focused on four of the district's seven elementary schools, weighing the pros and cons of each.

Districts also realize cost savings from the closures, through less money spent on facilities and any layoffs that occur. In Half Hollow Hills, officials estimate they will save about $3 million, mainly from staff cuts.

The closures mean shifting not only the students now attending Chestnut Hill and Forest Park, but those at other schools for the 2014-15 school year.

The district this year has 3,475 elementary school students and 932 of them are from Chestnut Hill and Forest Park.

Board members are scheduled to consider a new district map at their Dec. 2 meeting.

Susanne and Robert Cippitelli, who moved to Dix Hills in June, have five children, two in elementary school.

They were "blindsided," said Susanne Cippitelli, 36. They chose their new home primarily because their kindergartner and first-grader, both boys, would go to Forest Park starting this school year, she said.

"We absolutely wanted to be located in a home that was zoned for Forest Park," she said, noting that it has been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School for its high academic performance. But now the couple is bracing and fighting the school's closure, and the biggest question they still have is "Why Forest Park?"

'Life has to go on'

David Leibowitz, 51, who lives in North Bellmore, said he was upset when his district decided last year to close Jacob Gunther Elementary School, which his two children attended, but suggested to other parents, "Don't let your anger affect your children."

"It is terrible that they are closing the school, but life has to go on . . . ," Leibowitz said.

Several district administrators stressed the importance of community involvement. Like Half Hollow Hills, most created committees with district resident representation. The committees ultimately made recommendations to district officials, and the boards of education voted on the closures.

"I think that was essential to the process," said Baldwin Superintendent James Scannell, who was assistant superintendent for instruction when two of the district's elementary schools were closed.

Mineola officials also relied heavily on what the community was saying. Nagler said the decision was made to close the district's newest elementary school -- Willis Avenue -- and keep open the older Hampton Street Elementary School. "The community felt very strongly about keeping their identity in a neighborhood school, even though it was built in 1939," Nagler said. The district built an addition to the Hampton Street school.

Mineola closed two elementary schools total -- Cross Street School in June 2011, and Willis Avenue the next year.

Parents and educators emphasized the need for a well-planned, smooth transition period.

"Large groups of children felt a huge sense of loss," said Baldwin resident Tracy Mahler, who had four children in Milburn Elementary School when it closed in June 2012 along with Shubert Elementary School.

She said her children were never given the opportunity to participate in "support groups" or "some sort of outlet to talk about how they were feeling."

"That's where I feel the district dropped the ball."

Scannell said the district held meet-and-greets, open houses and commemoration events for the schools that were closed.

Benefits from shuttering

The savings from shuttering schools result in tangible benefits for students, Nagler and others said. In Mineola, the district has been able to add libraries and new programs in science and accelerated studies.

"There is no perfect way to close a building," he said when asked to reflect on the district's decision. "If you have a vision and lay out the vision about how the district is not only going to survive but thrive, that's the real focal point."

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