By Thomas P. Caldwell
FRANKLIN — While most New Hampshire school districts are facing declining student populations, the numbers — if not the individual students — have been relatively stable in Franklin; but Paul Smith Elementary School, the only one in the city, is actually experiencing an increase that may force the school district to look for additional space.
Principal Mike Hoyt told the school board at its October meeting that he has one classroom with 27 students and that, if the trend continues, total enrollment at the Paul Smith School could reach 500 next year. If that happens, there will not be enough space at the school to accommodate the students.
Superintendent Robert McKenney said he is just starting to consider the options, should additional space become necessary. McKenney, who rejoined School Administrative Unit 18 this year after having previously served as superintendent a decade ago, said that, at that time, the school district had been using portable classrooms but discovered that they were more expensive to maintain than it would cost to build an addition. In fact, the district had added several classrooms to Paul Smith School at that time.
Budget constraints forced the school district to give up the Bessie Rowell Elementary School which now serves as a community center. McKenney said that, while the district could consider moving classes back into Bessie Rowell, it would be difficult because of the community use of the space.
Another option would be to approach St. Paul Parish about utilizing classroom space there, but McKenney was not sure it would be available to the School District.
That leaves modulars or building another addition on the end of Paul Smith. McKenney said former business manager Bob Brooks had pointed out that, in addition to the rental costs for a modular classroom, the building had to be connected to electricity, water, and sewer, and those costs add up.
Meanwhile, Paul Smith School is meeting students' needs with the use of aides and Foster Grandparents. Hoyt said there is at least one helper in each grade and sometimes two to provide one-on-one instruction when necessary. Title I funds provide some help and the school has other specialists it can use, along with four foster grandparents who Hoyt said do a great job working with the children.
Currently, Paul Smith School has 486 students and, while they try to keep classrooms at a maximum of 25 students, that is not always possible. Hoyt said he tries to move staff around when there is a need for an additional class in a particular grade, pulling a fourth grade instructor to teach a third grade classroom, in order to balance out the class sizes.
"The teachers do an amazing job," McKenney said, "combining patience with firmness and a caring attitude."
While Franklin, like most school districts, has some homeless students, a bigger problem is a huge transient population, due to unstable financial or social family situations. Last year, Hoyt said, there were 100 students who came or left — more than 30 percent of the population — and some of those enrolled or departed more than once.
"We've had second or third graders that have been in three or five different schools," he said.
In some cases, a student will temporarily move in with a relative; in others, a family is taking temporary shelter with one friend or another for brief periods of time. It makes it difficult for the school district to help such students catch up with the rest of the class or provide a continuum of education.
"The foundation has to be a sense of cooperation and familiarity between parents and teachers," said McKenney. "We encourage parents to get to know the teachers."
Hoyt said it is not uncommon for a student to begin a school year in one district and, part-way through the year, to relocate in another community. Sometimes a family does not register the student in the new school district and that student disappears from the system until someone realizes and calls in a truant officer or contacts the Division of Children, Youth, and Families.
McKenney noted that fewer students get overlooked since Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act that requires a school district to accept a student from another district if that student seeks enrollment. In the past, a school district might hold off until all the documentation is in, but now the student gains enrollment immediately, after which the district will seek prior medical and academic records. Additionally, if a student lives in one municipality and wants to attend school in another, the two school districts are required to share transportation expenses.
For a city with a property tax cap, that could be a problem, but McKenney said special education in general is a bigger problem for the budget. A child with special needs moving into a district can break the budget while a student moving out may result in budgeted expenses not being necessary.
"I don't criticize the tax cap," McKenney said. "I understand we all have our limitations, and we don't spend more than we make. We have to live within our income, so we do the best we can. Sometimes it's like a magic show, but I give credit to people around here; everyone knows we can do anything as long as it doesn't cost money. All have a good attitude to get the job done."
He continued, "Most schools are good about dealing with the transient population. At a superintendent's meeting I just attended, the subject of homelessness came up, and there were no solutions, just problems, so it came down to, 'We enroll them.'"
One of the problems with enrolling children whose living conditions are constantly changing is that they often have no books at home. The school district will loan out books, even though not all of them may be returned, in order to see that those students have a chance to read at home.
McKenney summed it up by saying, "In spite of what the teachers try to do, we need a stable population so we get to know the kids."