Barnegat Schools Superintendent: School Reconfiguring Not Etched in Stone

Mar 20, 2019

Earlier this year, Barnegat Township resident Tracy Sutton’s daughter came home from school in tears. She is a student at the Joseph T. Donahue Elementary School, but next year the youngster would be moved to the Lillian M. Dunfee Elementary School according to a reconfiguring plan announced this month by Barnegat School District Superintendent Brian Latwis.

“I had no idea this was happening, and turned out nobody else knew about it, either,” said Sutton. “Then later that day, I got an email from the superintendent outlining what was happening.”

The proposed reconfiguring plan, among other changes, would result in the four elementary schools housing two grades each rather than continuing as K-5 buildings. If the plan goes into effect next September, the Cecil S. Collins School would house pre-K and kindergarten. The Joseph T. Donohue School would be home for first and second grade. Third- and fourth-graders would attend the Lillian M. Dunfee School, while the Robert Horbelt School would house grades five and six. The Russell O. Brackman Middle School would house grades seven and eight instead of the current six through eight, becoming a junior high.

Sutton and another Barnegat parent, Christine Matzer Krug, have started an online petition opposing the reconfiguring plan, which Sutton said “threw so many people off-guard.” The goal is to receive 1,500 signatures. They currently have close to 1,000.

Sutton was one of the hundreds of parents who filled the high school auditorium on Thursday, March 14, to hear Latwis give a 75-minute presentation, followed by the audience breaking up into several groups for question and answers in other rooms. But many of the parents in the auditorium wouldn’t hear of that, as they continually peppered Latwis with questions. And Sutton didn’t blame them.

“They weren’t going to be satisfied unless they were to hear directly from the superintendent,” she said. “Most of the people there felt they got this dumped on them. There was no transparency. I don’t think it was anything personal, but parents have a right to know exactly what’s going on.”

Sutton felt that perhaps the issue should have been studied by board of education subcommittees months ago.

“They could have held special meetings to get public input so that we’d be much more prepared,” she said. “We got this without any warning.”

According to Latwis, one of the main reasons for the change is to improve the performance of students, and to create what he said was a better atmosphere for learning.

“Our kids are struggling, and nobody’s trying to hide that,” he said.

He pointed to Barnegat school rankings released recently by the state Department of Education, whose data was based on graduation rate, absenteeism, PARCC scores and student growth and progress. The Horbelt School was ranked 947 out of 2,105 public schools in New Jersey, and its score out of 100 was 55.

Next was the Collins School, ranked 1,425 and given a 32.29 score, followed by Brackman, which was ranked 1,146 and given a 31.29 score.

The high school was ranked 1,583, and had a score of 24.79. Dunfee earned a ranking of 1,640, with a 22.06. Trailing the field was Donahue, whose ranking was 1,792 and which had a 14.88 score.

“As a district, our students consistently underperform on standardized tests,” said Latwis.

He said the reconfiguration eliminates the middle school because it has a been “a tough adjustment for a lot of our kids.”

“Last year, Brackman reported more than 900 disciplinary referrals for the sixth grade,” said Latwis.

He also said Brackman had 19 HIB (Harassment Intimidation Bullying) referrrals among sixth-graders, while the four elementary schools had a combined total of seven.

“We can utilize resources more efficiently, which has a positive impact on the budget,” he said. “We’ll have the ability to outfit each building to support specific age groups, whether it’s resources and materials, playground and facilities, targeted instructional programs, technology and clubs and activities.”

Latwis said other benefits include implementation of a full-time anti-bullying specialist, expansion of gifted and talented programs, and increase in strategic reading intervention to support literacy.

“Similarly, this model allows students to grow with their peers in Barnegat starting in pre-kindergarten, thereby creating a larger, more unified community,” he said. “We are also working together to create a plan for seamless transitions from each school that allows for students, teachers and families to celebrate the accomplishments and successes that each student has achieved at every level.”

Richard Quelch, who ran unsuccessfully for a board seat the last two years, said change is needed.

“But I could see at the meeting that a lot of people were upset how this was all done,” he said. “It’s clear that our students are underperforming and that there are problems with kids when they go to the middle school. They (school officials) have to take time to come up with a plan that works best for everyone.”

Several times, Latwis had to remind people that “nothing is etched in stone.”

“We think that this reconfiguration model will work for us,” he said. “I expect us to have more public sessions like these, and people are welcome to speak about it at the board of education meetings.” The next board meeting is Tuesday, March 26, at 6:30 p.m. at the Collins School.

He also said people can communicate questions to

— Eric Englund

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