Magnet Program Changes Cause Controversy in Wicomico County

SALISBURY, Md.- The upcoming school year will be one of change for dozens of students involved in Wicomico County's Magnet Program for advanced learners.

Those students now finishing up the year at Pemberton Elementary have to move to North Salisbury Elementary. It is a decision some parents say they are not happy with, but the district says this consolidation needs to happen.

“Why weren't the parents notified?”

It is a question parents like David Burns and Chris DiPasqua, who have children in Pemberton Elementary's Magnet Program, want answered.

“Finding out in the 11th hour on May 23rd, on a Friday evening at 6 p.m. that our children were being displaced to another school, and not having the ability to have any input over a holiday weekend, I think it was a bit disrespectful to the parents, quite honestly,” DiPasqua told WBOC.

Wicomico Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Fredericksen said that was not the intention.

“We had a lot of issues that were going on in dealing with details, and it wasn't until about the third week of May that we really pulled all the data together,” he noted. “It looked like it was trending in the direction that we might be making a move, but it wasn't until about the third week of May that we really had all our data together to really make a decision with it.”

Fredericksen said consolidating the Magnet Program, and moving it from Pemberton to North Salisbury Elementary, was needed.

“The biggest issue we have is that we have empty classrooms at North Salisbury, and we have a tightness in terms of classrooms at Pemberton Elementary School,” he explained. “The second one is, the reduction of students in the Magnet program, because we raised the standards, and we're holding to those standards.”

According to Dr. Fredericksen, moving Magnet students from Pemberton also increases the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced meals, enabling the school to continue receiving Title I funding.

But the change isn't sitting well with everyone.

“Taking these measures to consolidate the program devalues the role of advanced academic education for the best and brightest learners that we have in the county,” DiPasqua noted. "And, the emotional impact on these children, to have to make this transition, three schools in three years. If you're a fourth grader, you're at Pemberton, 5th grade, North Salisbury, 6th grade, you're in the middle school, wherever that should be located."

“I'm interested in class size, quality of education and whether all of those things are going to be maintained, because she's had an excellent education at Pemberton Elementary in the Magnet Program in the fourth grade,” said Burns.

“I'm delighted that they like the program at Pemberton,” Fredericksen responded. “I'm positive they're going to really, really like the program at North Salisbury.”

Fredericksen told WBOC that even though the Magnet Program is being consolidated, there is no talk of it being phased out.

The Board of Education is working on transition activities, including speaking with families and providing tours, and also released the following:

FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions about the Magnet Program Consolidation       

Q: Why has the decision to consolidate the Magnet Program at North Salisbury been made now?

A: Since its creation in the 1980s, the Magnet Program had served high performing learners at North Salisbury Elementary. In 2002, with the completion of a major renovation project at Pemberton Elementary, the Magnet Program was reorganized into two regional centers, at North Salisbury and at Pemberton Elementary. The overall enrollment in the Magnet Program has changed since then, leading to fewer classes and smaller class sizes, particularly at Pemberton. Pemberton Elementary, the school system, and families have been aware of this trend for the past two to three years.

At the same time as Magnet enrollment numbers have decreased, the enrollment in Pemberton’s traditional school has grown dramatically. The 84 Pemberton Magnet Program students are part of a large student body of more than 629 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 5. North Salisbury Elementary, meanwhile, has a classroom available at each of its grade levels to accommodate the additional Magnet Program students, and has the same grade-level instructional focus on Grades 3 through 5 as the Magnet Program.

An additional factor in the decision to move the Magnet Program out of Pemberton now is the effect that the program has on the school’s overall percentage of students eligible for Free and Reduced Meals (FARM). Pemberton Elementary’s traditional school has a high percentage of students who qualify for FARM, but its schoolwide percentage of 58.1% when Magnet Program students are included puts its FARM percentage below the county average of 59.98% -- the level below which Title I funding is not allocated. At its current FARM level, Pemberton would no longer receive Title I support after next school year, costing the school critically needed resources for staff, materials of instruction, and professional development. The relocation of the Pemberton Magnet Program to North Salisbury will not affect North Salisbury’s Title I status, as North Salisbury has not been receiving Title I funding.

Q: How will consolidating the Magnet Program enhance instructional opportunities?

A: The consolidation of all Magnet classes to one school will allow for enhanced delivery of instruction, improved collaboration among all Magnet teachers and grade-level Magnet teams, and increased efficient and effective use of classroom space at both Pemberton Elementary and North Salisbury Elementary. Right now, for example, two grades at Pemberton have only a single teacher on a grade-level team, allowing no collaboration with grade-level teammates or specialization by teachers in content areas such as math, reading/language arts, science and social studies. Magnet teachers will be able to collaborate with a larger group of teachers both within and across grade levels and work with a greater number of students on day-to-day assignments and special projects. Teachers and students will benefit from this increased collaboration.

Q: Is this a first step toward eliminating the Magnet Program?

A: The consolidation of the Magnet Program to one school, North Salisbury Elementary, will strengthen this program for high performing learners. By restoring the Magnet Program to its original model as a single location, the program will be even stronger than it is today.

Q: Why can’t Pemberton’s Grade 3 and 4 students continue in the Magnet Program at Pemberton until they finish Grade 5, and just begin serving all Grade 3 Magnet Program students at North Salisbury next year?

A: The school system must make sure that all Wicomico County students receive a quality education in a fiscally responsible manner. Most importantly, consolidating all Magnet Program students to one location will provide the best instructional opportunities for students and teachers. Pemberton will be able to make immediate use of the much needed classroom space, while at the same time North Salisbury will be able to fully utilize its classrooms. The additional transportation costs that would be associated with phasing out the Pemberton Magnet Program, along with the delay in Pemberton Elementary being able to make more balanced use of its classrooms for classes pre-kindergarten through Grade 5, favored making an immediate change rather than pursuing a phasing option.

Q: Will Pemberton Magnet teachers be transferred to the North Salisbury Magnet Program?

A: All of the current Pemberton Magnet teachers except one will be transferred to North Salisbury to continue working with students in the Magnet Program next year. One Magnet teacher has requested to remain at Pemberton.

Q: What are the potential class sizes for the consolidated Magnet Program?

A: This year, Pemberton has only one Grade 3 class with 23 students, and North Salisbury has three Grade 3 classes with 56 students. We project that for next year, these students would move into four Grade 4 classes of approximately 20 students each.

In Grade 4 this year, Pemberton has two Grade 4 classes with 35 students (17 or 18 students per class), and North Salisbury has two Grade 4 classes with 50 students (25 students per class). These students would move into four Grade 5 classes of approximately 21 students each.

The number of students in next year’s Grade 3 Magnet Program is not yet known, as the final data piece for Magnet consideration, the mathematics cumulative end-of-year assessment, was taken only last week. Parents and guardians of current Wicomico 2nd-grade students will receive a letter regarding the student’s eligibility for the Magnet Program with the student’s final report card, on June 13. Letters for non-public 2nd-graders who took the InView assessments last month will be mailed on the same day. Families of students invited to attend Magnet in the 3rd grade must notify the school system by Tuesday, July 8 whether they will accept the Magnet Program invitation or will remain in the school they are districted to attend.

Q: Will next year’s classes have mixed Pemberton/North Salisbury Magnet students, or will students from the two locations be kept separate?

A: Students from both Magnet locations will be combined in next year’s Magnet classes at North Salisbury, so there will be Pemberton and North Salisbury Magnet students in every classroom. This is the same procedure used to make class assignments for incoming 3rd graders who are coming from the different schools that feed into Magnet. Class assignment letters will be mailed in mid-August.

Q: Why weren’t Pemberton Elementary Magnet Program families told about the change sooner, before the decision was final?

A: The decision to consolidate the two Magnet Program sites at one location required a detailed review of both schools’ capacities, special area teacher availability, class sizes, and other factors. Information could not be shared with families until this comprehensive review of the Magnet Program was completed, in the third week of May. Families were informed on Friday, May 23, right after the decision was made to consolidate the program for next year.

Q: If I have one child in Magnet at Pemberton and one not in Magnet at Pemberton, may I apply for special permission so that they can continue to attend the same school?

A: All special permission requests, including ones connected to the Magnet Program, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Special permission must be approved by the building principal, who takes into account class sizes and building capacity. Throughout Wicomico County, many siblings attend different schools.

Q: When do I need to notify Wicomico Schools if I do not wish to have my Pemberton Magnet student continue in the Magnet Program at North Salisbury next year?

A: Students in Grades 3 and 4 in the Pemberton Elementary Magnet Program will be automatically reassigned to the North Salisbury Elementary Magnet Program for 2014-2015 unless the parents/guardians request that the student not continue in the Magnet Program. Parents/guardians may inform North Salisbury Elementary Principal Ruby Brown if their student will not be continuing in the Magnet Program, and she will ensure that the student’s records are forwarded to the student’s home school.

Q: Can Pemberton parents and students tour North Salisbury and meet the teachers?

A: To give Pemberton Magnet parents and students a chance to tour North Salisbury Elementary and its Magnet Program, tours are planned for June 9 and 10, while school is still in session. A field trip for Pemberton 3rd and 4th graders and their teachers is scheduled for Monday, June 9 from 9:15-10:45 a.m. Students will be paired with North Salisbury “buddy” students to tour the building, meet the teachers, and learn more about the program at North Salisbury.

Parent/guardian tours of North Salisbury are scheduled for Monday, June 9 from 9-9:30 a.m. or 9:45-10:15 a.m., and for Tuesday, June 10 from 1-1:30 p.m. or 1:45-2:15 p.m. Teachers will be available to answer questions for parents/guardians. Students will bring home a permission slip on Wednesday, June 4 listing the tour options and details of the planned Pemberton student/teacher field trip to North Salisbury.

North Salisbury Elementary will also hold a Magnet Program parent information meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, June 16. This meeting is primarily for parents/guardians of current 2nd-graders who receive notice on June 13 that the student is eligible to enroll in Magnet for Grade 3.

Parents/guardians of current Pemberton Magnet students in grades 3 and 4 may also visit North Salisbury at this time to tour the building and have their questions addressed, though not all Magnet teachers will be there that night. For information please call (410) 677-5807.

Q: What is the schedule for the North Salisbury Elementary Magnet Program?

A: The school day for North Salisbury Elementary Magnet students is the same as it is for the Pemberton Elementary Magnet Program. Students may enter the building starting at 7:45 a.m., and the school day begins at 8:15 a.m. Magnet Program dismissal is at 2:15 p.m.

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