Veronica Barcelona de Mendoza is a Mansfield resident and the mother of a second grader at Goodwin Elementary School. She lives about one mile from the school, but every morning it takes her son up to 45 minutes to get to school on the bus.
Transportation of students is one of the major challenges facing the semi-rural Mansfield elementary school system. Many of Mansfield’s roads are old and damaged by the New England weather. In many places, the roads are so narrow that two cars barely pass each other by.
“I’m concerned about how far my son will have to be bussed [to school]” Mendoza said.
Creating a reliable system of bus routes that serves all of Mansfield is a challenge, especially when the passengers are kindergarten through fourth graders.
As the future of Mansfield’s trio of elementary schools comes up for discussion again, transportation is just one of the issues on parent’s minds.
Between 2006 and 2012, Mansfield parents and taxpayers decided to continue maintaining the three public elementary schools that serve the area. The three elementary schools, Dorothy C. Goodwin, Southeast, and Annie E. Vinton, have educated Mansfield children for over 50 years.
As part of the recently passed Mansfield Tomorrow Plan, the future of the three schools is once again up for discussion. The plan presents two options, either renovate the three schools to like-new condition or construct one or two new schools that would replace the three.
After elementary school, the Mansfield public school district consists of one middle school, Mansfield Middle School. The middle school serves every student in Mansfield, but enrollment over the past 10 years has dropped by 15 percent. Conversely, total enrollment over the past 10 across all three elementary schools has increased by 5 percent. The town must assess if the current elementary schools can serve their children well enough.
All three of Mansfield’s elementary schools are over 50 years old and have numerous structural and utility issues, Mansfield Superintendent of Schools Kelly Lyman said.
The schools issues include boiler problems, bad roofing, faulty windows and an old steam system that is difficult to maintain, Lyman said. The schools also suffer from a lack of space. The gym, cafeteria and auditorium are the same room, Lyman said. No elementary school has an actual library. They are using converted classroom space, Lyman said.
Maintaining the current trio of elementary schools costs the town $400,000 per year, a Mansfield Town Council member and E.O Smith High School graduate Alex Marcellino said.
Current reimbursement formulas make it impossible for state funding to subsidize the renovation of the schools, according to the Mansfield Tomorrow Plan. Mansfield taxpayers would have to fund the renovations through increased taxes, the plan states.
There are other concerns with the renovate like-new option. The overall cost of renovating the schools is likely higher than constructing one or two new schools. There would also be the issue of where to send the students to school during the renovations, Lyman said.
There is no current estimate of much renovations or construction would cost. The plan is to hire an outside planning consultant to address the costs of both options, Lyman said.
This exceeds the budget of the Mansfield Board of Education and will be submitted as part of the town budget in the 2016-2017 capital improvement fund, Lyman said.
There is a good chance that the funds for this will be approved, Marcellino said. The 2016-2017 budget meeting will take place this May.
The current three schools are full or close to it. The district standard class size is 18 students, but each school currently has a least one class of 20 students, Lyman said. In addition, Vinton elementary is currently at capacity, Lyman said.
“We would love to add another teacher [to Vinton], but there isn’t enough physical classroom space,” Lyman said.
Class size is a critical factor in a child’s academic and social development. Students in smaller classes perform better in all subjects compared to their peers in larger classes, the National Council of Teachers of English said in a statement.
The effect of small class sizes has the most impact during the elementary years, according to the NCTE. The earlier and longer that a child is in small classes, the more they benefit. Students who are engaged in small classes in elementary school also carry the benefits with them into higher education. A student enrolled in small elementary classes will continue to benefit even if they are in larger classes in high school and college, according to the NCTE.
The benefits of smaller class sizes go beyond school. Students in smaller classes are more likely to talk to each other and the teacher, rather than sitting passively, according to the NCTE. A study published by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of the National Education Policy Center found that the benefits of small classes follow students beyond school as well. Students assigned to smaller classes fared better than their peers in large classes across a variety of metrics, Schanzenbach wrote. These include criminal behavior, teen pregnancy, graduation rates, marriage rates and home ownership.
Rochelle Marcus, a teacher at Mansfield Middle School who has studied the effects of class size on students, said that her ideal class size is 18 students.
“With a large class of 25 or more students, I’m not going to be able to personalize it [class] as much, and I’m going to have behavior issues.” Marcus said.
Large class sizes do create an environment where the students will work together better and more independently, but this is because it’s not possible to give personalized attention like you would to a smaller class, Marcus said.
Parents in Mansfield have grown attached to the three elementary schools for other reasons as well. In a Feb. 4 letter to the Mansfield Town Council, resident Jonathan Sgro expressed his disdain for the idea of constructing new schools. When the issue was raised before, parents voted to keep the current three schools, Sgro said.
People like the concept of small community schools, especially at the elementary level. They get attached to the school and its teachers, Marcellino said.
“One of the reasons we chose to move to Mansfield was because of the excellent school district here” Mendoza said.
Mendoza did acknowledge that there are areas that need to be improved on. A separate gym, cafeteria and auditorium would be crucial if the schools were to be renovated, Mendoza said. The school’s technology is also in need of an upgrade.