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Recently, the North Stonington Board of Education held a hearing that was required by state law regarding a petition generated by a resident of the town. That hearing, on the question of whether to close or keep open Wheeler High School, was held Nov. 28 in full compliance of the statute.
As erroneous and misleading as the facts in the petition were, the hearing at least allowed for some passionate opinions and discussion on both sides. It must also be noted that the petitioner filed the document with the town and not the Board of Education on Oct. 29, which by statute, was within the Board of Education's jurisdiction. The petition was dated April 18, clearly out of compliance by 11 days as the statute requires it be filed within six months.
It was easy to see by the end of the evening that the overwhelming majority of residents desire a high school in their community, and that many without children currently attending or not having any children ever attending, love Wheeler High School. It was also clear to the Board of Education that nothing stated that evening swayed the members from a resolution passed last spring regarding their desire to keep Wheeler High School. It was reaffirmed by another resolution, which calls for a facilities plan moving forward. In the resolution it states that the plan, "first and foremost address the educational needs of the students in grades Pre-K through 12 and be affordable to the residents of the Town of North Stonington."
In my former district there are two high schools. In order to address the New England Association of Schools and Colleges' (NEASC) recommendations in their decennial report regarding facilities issues at one of the schools, we took an existing high school, which was approximately 90 years old, added an addition and made renovations. That four-story, 40,000-square-foot project included over 13 new classrooms (many of them biology and chemistry labs), a state-of- the-art library media center, two computer rooms, a separate band and chorus room, a small cafeteria as well as a new elevator to meet ADA requirements. We also completely refurbished a 90-year-old auditorium with new seats, sound and lighting system. The project was completed in 2008 and cost the city $10 million.
Just two more points: When I was a high school administrator and seniors would ask me for my opinion on where they should attend college I would tell them; you can be a big fish in a small sea or a small fish in a big sea - it's up to you. And if you think that everyone adjusts well in the transition from a middle school to a large high school, trust me; in high schools that are as large as they are in my former district, there are many students with diagnosed anxiety and school phobia problems because the school is just too big!
Finally, there is much to be said for school choice or having, as some stated, more choices of courses, sports and activities. In my former district, my two traditional high schools each had almost 1,700 students. Each offers a variety of sports, but if you are a male or a female interested in those sports, you would be one of approximately 850 students in each gender category trying out for positions to make the team. The chances are not very good.
Students at Wheeler High School not only have a better chance of making the team, but they also have a better chance of playing. It's much more fun staying after school at Wheeler in order to attend practice and play in a game, than being one of the 832 students in each gender category in my former school district just going home at the end of the day.
Sometimes, it's nice to be in a small sea.
Peter L. Nero is the superintendent of North Stonington Public Schools.