While the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) is getting the majority of the attention on the Bowdoin campus, a race for at-large school board representative between incumbent Malcolm Andrews and challenger Kathy Thorson highlights an issue that could have a similarly significant effect on local public schools.

Last November, Brunswick Superintendent of Schools James Ashe proposed a plan that would close Longfellow School and Hawthorne School, both local K-5 (kindergarten through fifth grade) elementary schools, and eliminate K-5 schools from the Brunswick system altogether.

Under Ashe's proposal, Brunswick kindergarten, first grade, and second grade students would be divided between the town's two remaining elementary schools?Coffin School and Jordan Acres School?while all students in grades 3-5 would be placed in a yet-to-be-built 750-student school.

This proposal has met with ardent criticism from some local parents and School Board members. Thorson, wife of Bowdoin Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Mark Battle and mother of a Longfellow kindergartener, is running for at-large School Board representative on an anti-consolidation platform. In an interview with the Orient, she cited research showing that students excel more in a smaller school environment.

"Research clearly shows that replacing small schools with larger one actually makes socioeconomic differences worse...Small K-5 schools are better because teachers and administrators know the children, parents are more involved, and older students can mentor younger ones," she said at an October 23 speech at the School Board candidates forum.

"I'm going with the research," she said Wednesday in an interview with the Orient. "Why would we opt for something of lesser value educationally for students?"

Competing research

Thorson's platform was inspired by research brought to her attention by Bowdoin Department of Education Chair Charles Dorn. In a commentary published in the Brunswick Times Record in January, Dorn wrote, "In study after study, small schools (500 or fewer students) produce higher student achievement, a decrease in behavior problems, higher attendance rates, increased extracurricular participation, improved instructional quality, and improved teacher working conditions and job satisfaction."

However, Ashe believes that most data cited by Dorn and Thorson are not directly relevant to Brunswick elementary schools.

"I know people immediately say 'research,'" he said in an interview with the Orient. "But most of the time the research they're talking about with small schools is with high schools."

Ashe also said that many educational studies that opponents of his proposal have touted are conducted in urban communities, and that it doesn't make sense to apply their findings to Brunswick.

Dorn refuted Ashe's arguments in an interview yesterday with the Orient, saying that research of small schools has been going on for over 30 years, and includes studies at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, in both urban and suburban environments. He suggested that because recently small school research has begun to focus more heavily on high schools, Ashe might not be aware of the body of elementary school research that has been growing since the 1970s.

"Rarely do the results of so many studies generate such consistent findings," Dorn wrote in his January 2006 op-ed, which also quoted a U.S. Department of Education researcher as saying, "Research has repeatedly found small schools to be superior to large schools on most measures... This holds true for both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels in all kinds of settings."

Still, Ashe said that School Board members and Brunswick residents should be focusing on studies regarding elementary education in Maine, not the country at large. He cited a February 2006 study commissioned by the Maine Legislature's Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs and conducted by Dr. David L. Silvernail, director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

Silvernail's study found that in Maine elementary schools, average grade size has no negative effect on students' Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) scores. In fact, children in grades with 57 or more students scored slightly higher on average than children in smaller grades. Additionally, the study found that larger grade sizes mean each student costs less to educate.

"Just because you're small doesn't mean you're going to be a high-performance school," said Ashe.

In contrast to the data cited by Dorn and Thorson, Silvernail's study also indicated that among Maine elementary schools, principals from schools with more students per grade reported less bullying and higher levels of student motivation.

The report concludes that these analyses "provide substantial evidence that some of the fairly widely held assumptions about the benefits of small schools do not hold true for Maine schools."

Building for the future

The town of Brunswick is currently home to four K-5 elementary schools: Longfellow, Hawthorne, Coffin School, and Jordan Acres.

The latter two hold a portion of their classes in outdated "portable" classroom buildings. These "trailers" have been part of the schools' landscapes for so long that their portability is all but trivial. Originally intended to provide five-year relief, the portables at Jordan Acres have been around for nearly two decades. Some of the ones at Coffin have been part of that school for even longer.

Several years ago, the School Board resolved to take action to finally get rid of the trailers and address the space concerns of the town's ailing elementary schools. According to Ashe, the board told him to find out whether it would be economically feasible to renovate the schools.

"We very quickly learned that we couldn't get the space we needed for Hawthorne," he said. "Then we looked at the other schools, and when you start doing renovations, you trigger all new codes... pretty soon it got so expensive that we went, 'Wait a minute, we can't possibly do these renovations.'"

Ashe and the board decided that the next logical move was to apply for support from the state of Maine. They submitted separate applications for each of the four elementary schools, plus the junior high school. After a number of months, the Maine Board of Education decided that Hawthorne could not adequately serve student needs and agreed to finance a new school in Brunswick.

As a condition, the Maine Board of Education told the Brunswick board that it would have to devise a "master plan"?one that could be sustainable for the next half a century?for elementary education in Brunswick before it would approve funds for a building project.

The board's original plan called for the construction of a new K-5 elementary school to replace Hawthorne. But after doing research, Ashe decided that he thought that the money pledged by the state for a new school would not cover the cost of all-day kindergarten, special education programs, English as a Second Language programs, and other important programs and services without increasing the burden on local taxpayers.

That's when he devised the plan to house all students in grades 3-5 in the new school, divide K-2 among Coffin and Jordan Acres, and close Longfellow.

Just two sides?

Kathy Thorson, the candidate for at-large representative, has made the original plan?to keep Longfellow open and use the state money to build a new K-5 school?part of her platform.

"We don't want consolidation for 50 years," she said.

In her speech at the candidates forum, Thorson quoted from a note the Brunswick School Department sent to the state in 2004, which reads, "A wide range of options were considered and it was determined that consolidation within the school district is not practicable, and that maintaining elementary schools in the 350-500 student range best meets the needs of Brunswick."

Referring back to her research, Thorson said, "If you want to do something for the kids, keep the smaller schools."

She also claimed that Ashe is focusing too much on minimizing the taxpayers' burden and isn't prioritizing the needs of the elementary school students.

"Most of his reasons are all for adults," she said, adding that Ashe has "a business background, not an educational one."

Thorson is not the only one with concerns about Ashe's latest proposal. Bowdoin alumnus Bob Morrison '52, who holds the other at-large seat on the school board, is troubled by the prospect of elementary students needing to change schools after second grade.

"If you put kids in transitions, that creates problems of adjustment for some kids," he told the Orient on Wednesday.

Ashe disagreed, saying that real transition difficulties happen when the students from the four separate elementary schools have to move into one junior high school. The latest proposal would ameliorate that problem because all public school students would be in the same school beginning in third grade.

Current Longfellow parent Henry C. W. Laurence, who is a professor of Asian studies and government at Bowdoin, is concerned that consolidating grades 3-5 would reduce the quality of elementary education in Brunswick and would therefore make it less attractive to faculty members who want to raise a family here.

"A good public school system is vital for attracting good faculty and staff, because private school is not an option on a Bowdoin faculty salary," he wrote Wednesday in an email to the Orient.

While Thorson has taken a hard line against Ashe's new plan, incumbent at-large representative Malcolm Andrews has refused to take a stance on the Ashe plan, telling the Times Record last Friday that "it would be irresponsible for me to make up my mind while the process is still ongoing."

"To discuss this in terms of only two possibilities, regardless of the public discussions of a year ago, is an over-simplification of the planning problem at hand today," he told the Orient.

"The real hazard in this process is that if individuals approach the board with single-minded views and refuse to entertain other opinions, the synergy and problem-solving ability of the group will be diminished," he said.

Ashe agreed that the issue of reconfiguration should not be a matter of taking sides. He said that despite the fact that he was the one who proposed the latest plan, it matters little to him which plan is put into action.

"This is just one idea," he said. "When we get done working with the architect, the building committee...this idea that I threw on the table might not be the best approach."

People's choice

Andrews is the only School Board representative whose seat is being contested this election. Both his name and Thorson's will appear on the ballot in every district next Tuesday.

The School Board will research and deliberate how to reconfigure the elementary school system in light of a new facility for the next year. The board's eventual decision will be put to a referendum vote next winter. No matter which grades of students it ends up housing, the board hopes to open the new school in 2010.