State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, hopes to make regional high schools a reality by the end of the current session for the state Legislature on June 21, thanks to two new bills being pushed through the Senate.
Sen. Young recently introduced legislation she hopes will help to make a regional high school feasible. She discussed the bills during a discussion Thursday at the Scharmann Theater at Jamestown Community College. Sen. Young was joined by area educators, lawmakers, students and parents to discuss the concept. The state Board of Regents has looked at the idea of school district mergers and regional high schools for several years and recently added the idea to its 2012 legislative priorities.
State Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua County, has been working hand-in-hand with Sen. Young on the bills, attempting to gain support from the state Assembly.
State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, speaks while, from left, state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Chautauqua County, state Sen. John Flanagan, R-Long Island, and Jay Baker, Chautauqua Lake Central School Board of Education vice president, listen during Thursday’s regional high school roundtable at Jamestown Community College.
P-J photo by Ryan Atkins
"In so many areas, Western New York is a leader in developing new ways to move the state forward," Goodell said. "The area still deals with declining enrollment in their schools and financial challenges, though."
Many area schools including Brocton, Ripley and Westfield have seen a major decline in student enrollment. Brocton Central School has 46 students in its entire senior class. Ripley Central School has seen its enrollment decrease to 314 students enrolled in the entire school, which includes pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
One Brocton senior, who was at the discussion Thursday and plans on going to the State University at Fredonia in the fall to study speech pathology, has earned 40 college credits during her high school career. With state funding continuing to decrease, a regional high school could be a way to keep options like college-level courses available. The classes can cost thousands of dollars per student every year.
Many students in these smaller high schools face what could be called "depth of transcript" issues. Despite excellent academic records, a lack of extracurricular activities and classes outside of the mandated lessons can result in them being unable to get into their college of choice.
Several schools have already taken steps toward mergers in the past to combat low enrollment rates and to help keep extracurricular activities alive for their students. Ripley Central School for example, had a very strong wrestling team in years past. With declining enrollment, they didn't have enough participation to fill all of the weight classes. To ensure that their students were still able to wrestle, they combined with Westfield and are looking to add students from Chautauqua Lake to their roster soon as well.
"The options at Ripley just aren't there right now," said a parent from the Ripley school district. "I want to know that these kids won't miss out on opportunities. From year to year, that's what the kids have to worry about - will there be enough people to field a team?"
Brocton went through a similar situation when it dropped its football team two years ago. The school has since merged teams with Westfield and have been asked to continue the merger next year, allowing students from both schools the chance to play the sport.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN
Representatives from the New York State United Teachers were also on hand for the discussion. While they didn't see the bills being discussed as a whole solution, they did admit regional high schools could be an important part of the solution for small school districts. The NYSUT representatives said the bills are something they plan to support.
Before the state Board of Regents can approve mergers, they are required to be given a demonstration of an improved academic plan. Declining enrollment is also an enemy that can still come back to haunt regional high schools. Schools must have a long-term plan of how to maintain a program of excellence down the road in order for the regional high schools to succeed. The bill will also increase state aid to kindergarten through eighth grades in order to better prepare children for the transition to a regional high school.
"It's been a lot of work trying to get the assembly on board. Cathy Young has been working directly with Cathy Nolan, the chair of the education board for the New York State Assembly in order to move this bill forward," Goodell said. "We're hopeful that the assembly will be able to move forward with this bill. The regional high school gives us a lot more flexibility and options for communities to maintain their local identity with K-8 schools, but still have the advantage of a large high school."
"It's really compelling to hear information from people that are actually affected by this, especially the young people," Sen. Young said. "We're working very hard to get everyone on board and making tremendous progress. This is all about opportunities for young people to be successful in college and the rest of their lives."
"The beauty in the regional high school concept is the collaborative nature of it. It would be a milestone and a great option that we really need," said Goodell. "The four years of high school that students go through will define how students perform for the next 40 years," said Goodell. "We want to be able to do the very best job we can for the children."