America / ARTICLES

The Boston Globe: “Shirley schools see student flight”

SHIRLEY – It was the technology part on the MCAS science exam that gave her trouble, things like how a light bulb works, or what type of wood is used for kitchen cabinets.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” 14-year-old Mikayla Rhodes told her mother, Jennifer.

Now Jennifer Rhodes, who blames her daughter’s poor performance on the fact that she only had a half year of science in seventh grade instead of a full year, says she is going to have to hire a private tutor to help Mikayla catch up. And she is not, she adds, going to make the same mistake with Mikayla’s younger sister, Jordan. Instead, she may send her to a charter school – such as the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in nearby Devens – where she will learn a foreign language and receive a full year of instruction in science and social studies.

“If you’re only giving them a half year of social studies and science, they’re not getting what other kids are getting,” Rhodes said. “Our kids are going to high school not having a language ever. In this day and age, you need language.”

This is a choice an increasing number of Shirley parents are making.

According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, while enrollment in the town’s elementary and middle schools steadily decreased between 1999 and 2008, the number of Shirley children attending charter schools rose from two students in September 1997 to 65 this year.

More parents are also sending their children to public schools in other towns.

The number of Shirley students attending elementary and middle public schools elsewhere increased from 64 in 1996 to 94 for the 2007-2008 school year. Meanwhile, the number of elementary and middle school students from other towns who choose to come to Shirley decreased from 86 in 2000 to 40 last school year. (Shirley’s high school students are schooled in Ayer and elsewhere, by contract.)

The final numbers on how many students from Shirley are attending public schools in other towns this year will not be released until the middle of the month, said school business manager Evan Katz, although initial estimates indicate those numbers are higher than last year’s.

The Shirley school district pays up to $5,000 for each student who attends public school in another town and $9,955 per charter school student, Katz said. Parents who opt out of their school district do not typically pay additional fees, unless imposed by the host district, which decides year to year how many out-of-town students to accept.

“Last year, we had our highest choice-out ever,” Katz said, noting that more than 17 percent of Shirley students attended schools outside the district. “This is a very high percent of our students leaving. Our district is among the highest in the state.”

So why are they leaving?

Interim Superintendent Malcolm Reid said he did not want to speculate on the reasons, but said the school is polling parents who send their children to other schools.

The School Department will compile the parents’ answers, share them with the community, and “see if we can address some of these things,” Reid said.

Meanwhile, several parents said they pulled their children out of Shirley because they feel that the community does not care about its schools because residents failed to support several budget overrides in recent years.

Parents point out that the schools have sustained a series of cuts; even Spanish, the only foreign language offered in Shirley, was eliminated.

This year, Shirley schools had to cut more than $280,000 despite rising fuel and other costs after a Proposition 2 1/2 tax-limit override failed to raise that amount on Sept. 9. Seventeen full-time staff members were laid off, including the middle school librarian and some teachers. The seventh and eighth grades now have only a half year of science and social studies as a result.

During the Town Meeting in June, “it became clear that there were not enough people in town who supported our views on education,” said Daniel Boudreau, who drives his three sons to Boxborough schools about a half-hour away.

Dina Samfield said she is trying to send her son to a different school for the same reason.

“I applied for Harvard and Groton because the town doesn’t ever seem to support the schools,” she said. “The school override lost by [almost] 300 votes.” (The exact margin of the defeat was 286 votes.)

For Deborah Santoro, whose daughter Anna started kindergarten this fall, the decision to transfer her to a different school had to do with a perceived lack of resources, starting with the Lura A. White Elementary School building itself.

“My first impression when I saw it was that it was held together with duct tape,” Santoro said. “It looks like it’s crumbling.”

After she saw that the teachers in kindergarten “weren’t even sure if they were going to have construction paper,” Santoro decided to pay $4,450 to take her daughter to Groton for full-time kindergarten – even though she could have attended kindergarten for free in Shirley.

“You shouldn’t have to fight for construction paper in kindergarten,” she said. “I just felt that moving forward, Shirley wasn’t going to have enough resources.”

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