Guests congregate while others leave Rudman Field following the Madison High School graduation last week. As school has ended for the summer, Maine School Administrative District 59 board has turned its focus on addressing space concerns this fall and exploring ways to increase offerings for its eighth graders and add more availability to its prekindergarten program. Haley Hersey/Morning Sentinel

MADISON — More space is needed within Maine School Administrative District 59 buildings in order to provide smaller classes and quality instruction, but parents and officials are sharply split over how best to accomplish that.

Discussions grew tense Monday during the district’s board of educators meeting, with community and board members at odds over honoring traditions and how to best provide educational opportunities for students.

One item on the board’s agenda called for the “exploration of expanding pre-K and possibly moving to a new location” and another for the exploration of “moving the eighth graders to the high school,” both for the 2022-23 school year.

A great portion of the nearly 40 community members in attendance were in favor of keeping the pre-K program at Madison Elementary School, due to the relationship with the school’s kindergarten program, and keeping the eighth grade at Madison Junior High School.

Discussions on moving the eighth grade began during the last round of ESSER/American Rescue Plan money, when the administrative team discussed reducing class size in all of the buildings amid the pandemic, according to the superintendent. Madison Junior High, however, does not have any spare space. Several years ago, the district’s Central Office moved to the junior high after its space on Western Avenue closed.

Through previous relief funding, the district purchased technology and curriculum with the goal of keeping students engaged.

“Some children have made gains, others have maintained and others have checked out,” MSAD 59 Superintendent Bonnie Levesque said. “The one piece that we feel can be done now to benefit all of the students is to reduce class size in the instructional classroom and give more one-on-one instruction, and give teachers more opportunities for quality feedback to their students.”

Additionally, Levesque said that the administrative team felt the eighth graders would have more academic opportunities if they were housed at the Madison Area Memorial High School.

“Exploratory programs could actually be worked into schedules to offer half- or full-year classes, (like) health, industrial arts, foreign languages, etc., and gifted students might have the options to take advanced placements” Levesque said in an email Tuesday. “The move would then have created space to expand the grades 5-7 teaching staff to create smaller classes.”

Capacity is not an issue for the eighth grade proposal, Levesque said, rather space for smaller classroom sizes.

“We are trying to make decisions (based) on students needs. Educating students is not a division problem,” Levesque said.

Some community members felt that these plans would not honor the longstanding community traditions and would take opportunities away from some students, including many end-of-year activities and celebrations to send the eighth grade class off to high school.

Some parents also spoke up about safety concerns that they personally have about the possibility of sending their middle-school-aged child to school with high-school-aged classmates.

Looking at other learning opportunities, the district is also seeking ways to expand its pre-K offerings, which currently allow up to 24 students and does not provide transportation.

“Currently there is only room for one classroom for pre-K and the enrollment is limited to 24,” Levesque said.

Enrollment is on a first-come, first-serve basis for the pre-K program in Madison and parents must provide transportation for their child. The district is anticipating $2.3 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan, which will provide $350 billion for states to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Levesque said that the district’s administrative team began discussions on expanding the program around the time the funding was announced.

“The administrative team began discussion of expanding that program to offer more families and children the opportunity to participate,” Levesque said. “This could be done by finding additional space, purchasing buses equipped to transport pre-K students, hiring an additional teacher and ed tech and offering an enrollment of 40.”

There has always been a waitlist for pre-K, the superintendent said, and some families skip applying altogether because transportation is not offered. About 24 students are in the program currently and kindergarten registration for the upcoming school year is already at 45.

“Where were the other 21 children? Did they go to a private pre-K program, or just never attended pre-K and will go right into kindergarten?” Levesque said. “Twenty percent of the American Rescue Plan is to be used to help bridge the achievement gap. The administration hopes to offer more opportunities for all of the MSAD 59 students to attend pre-K, thus having an impact to strengthen learning for years to come.”

Levesque said at the meeting that she had been made aware of a potential space in town that could be renovated to suit the needs of the pre-K program, but said on Tuesday in an email that she is not at liberty to discuss any additional details.

“Traditions mean a lot to this community and that was heard,” Levesque said Tuesday. “The facts (are) more space is needed at the junior high if we are going to reduce class sizes there. Moving to the high school was to gain space and to offer more academic options, and pre-K was about expanding the program and we need to hire more staff.”

After discussing for a couple of hours, the board ultimately decided to look at forming a committee to explore the possibility of moving the pre-K program and opportunities for moving the eighth graders. No decision has been made or finalized. Levesque said Tuesday that the board will be looking for “unbiased stakeholders to explore and bring a recommendation to the board in the future.”

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