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Hilltown families fight to keep their local school

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Lynne Graves photo

Several years ago, faced with the imminent closing of their town’s elementary school, a group of Worthington families took a bold step: they formed their own independent school.

Now they’ve launched a major fundraising campaign, seeking to raise $300,000 over the coming weeks, to keep it open. That money would tide the school over for one more academic year—at which point, the families hope, a bill pending at the Statehouse would allow it to return to its earlier status as a public school.

In 2010, the Gateway Regional School District, citing budget pressures and a decreasing student population, decided to close three of the five elementary schools in the district. Under the plan, students in Blandford, Russell and Worthington would now be sent to one of the two remaining elementary schools, in Littleville and Chester.

Some Worthington residents, however, protested the idea of closing their local Russell H. Conwell School. “A big part of the problem we saw, living in a rural community as we do, was simply the amount of time our daughter was going to spend on a school bus,” John McDonald, a former Conwell parent, recalled recently.

But there were also broader reasons Worthington residents objected to the closing. In this town of 1,200, as in other small communities, the local elementary school serves a vital social role. “Whether it’s for the Easter egg hunt, the school play, the spaghetti supper … we don’t want to lose that focal point of the community,” McDonald said.

 

When the plan to close Conwell was first announced, a group of residents attempted to open a Horace Mann charter school—a sort of hybrid charter model, in which the budget and other matters must be approved by the local School Committee and the teachers’ union—in the Conwell building. After state officials turned down that proposal, the families considered turning the building into a hub for homeschoolers before eventually deciding to instead open a low-cost private school there, using the charter school proposal as a blueprint.

Now called the R.H. Conwell Community Education Center, the school educates about 26 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as 12 to 15 children in a preschool program. It employs six full-time and two part-time educators, as well as a part-time director, according to McDonald, who now serves as president of Conwell’s board.

Conwell families pay a tuition of $1,500 per child, or a maximum of $3,000 per family—a miniscule amount compared to costs at other Valley private schools. “It’s not a tuition-based model at all,” McDonald said, noting that the school grants financial aid to families who need it, in keeping with its mission to provide an education to all children in Worthington.

Instead, the school relies heavily on fundraising events and individual contributions. In particular, McDonald said, it’s relied on support from musician Aaron Lewis, a founder of the rock group Staind, and his wife, Vanessa, who are Conwell parents. The couple started a foundation, called It Takes a Community, to financially support the school (it also supports other projects and programs in small New England communities), and Lewis has organized fundraising concerts and golf tournaments for Conwell as well.

In addition, McDonald said, the Lewis family has made personal donations to help the school cover its operating costs. While the Lewises will continue to hold fundraisers and offer support through the foundation, those ongoing direct contributions are no longer sustainable, said McDonald, who called the family’s support of the school “a debt we can never repay.”

The bulk—about 85 percent—of the $300,000 that the Conwell school hopes to raise would go to pay teacher salaries, McDonald said. The rest would help with other expenses, such as rent on its building, insurance and supplies. Given the difficulty of attracting grants from large foundations—“We’re talking about a couple dozen kids in a small town that no one’s ever heard of,” he said—the families expect most of that money to come from individual donors.

As of last week, the effort had raised about $20,000 and secured a $50,000 pledge from the It Takes a Community Foundation, according to McDonald. If the school falls short of its $300,000 goal, he said, it will consider scaled-down options, such as maintaining its classes for kindergartners through third graders only, or closing its elementary program but retaining its preschool and after-school childcare program, which is open to all kids in town, not just Conwell students. The school has set a fundraising deadline of mid-May, he added, so that teachers will have enough time to search for new jobs if necessary.

 

While a successful fundraising campaign would allow the independent Conwell Center to remain open through the 2014-15 school year, the long-term goal is for the school to become a public school once again.

A bill pending at the Statehouse, filed by state rep Steve Kulik (D-Worthington) and Sen. Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield), would allow Worthington to withdraw from the Gateway Regional School District. (Worthington could also withdraw with the unanimous approval of the six other communities that make up the regional district. However, Town Meetings in those towns have rejected that plan.)

If the bill passes, Worthington would then create an independent school district for grades kindergarten through six, and would seek an agreement with the Hampshire Regional School District that would allow middle and high schools students from the town to attend that district’s schools, with the town paying a set fee per child. While some discussions with Hampshire Regional officials have taken place, McDonald said, no agreement can be finalized until and unless Worthington is allowed to leave the Gateway district.

The bill has been approved in the House and now awaits a Senate vote. McDonald said he’s optimistic it will win final approval, allowing Conwell to reopen its doors in the fall of 2015 as the town’s public school.

McDonald estimates that about 80 percent of Worthington’s elementary school-aged population is enrolled at Conwell. His own daughter, who’s now in sixth grade, initially remained at Conwell before later moving to Gateway Regional Middle School—a one-hour bus ride away, he said—where she could receive special services she needed through an individual education plan. “That’s one of our limitations,” he noted. “By not really charging much for tuition, we can’t really provide special services.”

But, he added, Conwell offers important benefits to the entire town, bringing together residents and providing opportunities for them to volunteer or otherwise demonstrate community support. “People come to the fundraiser, whether they have kids or not. People come to the school play,” McDonald said. “The elementary school really serves as one of the focal points of the community.”•

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