Projections show steady enrollment in boro schools

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

METUCHEN — Whether or not the school district will need to adjust its facilities to accommodate changes in enrollment was up for discussion by school officials last week.

At a meeting held with administration officials at the Campbell School, the findings of a demographic study commissioned by the school board, which projects future enrollment in the school district over the next five years, was discussed.

The study, which concludes that enrollment in the district will remain basically steady, looked at the impact of various factors, including birth rate and new housing expected to be built in the borough through 2008, on the student population.

Schools Superintendent Terri Sinatra, Director of Curriculum Ruth Ziznewski and Robert Gugliara, principal of Campbell School, led the meeting.

Although the study covered all grades from kindergarten through high school, at this meeting only information concerning grades K-4 was discussed.

Also factored in were the results of the last demographic study which covers 1999-2003. 

"This new demographic study is the best estimate of our future gathered from the data provided," said Sinatra in her opening statement. 

What the study found was that there would be moderate growth in the district from this year’s enrollment of 1,846 students to 1,897 students in 2008. That amounts to a growth of 51 students — a 2.7 percent enrollment increase.

The biggest jump in enrollment is expected to occur in kindergarten between 2004 and 2005, when the number of students is projected to jump from 108 to 142.

Sinatra referred to this as part of a "blip theory", meaning that the student population will rise in the next two years, then level off.

The study, which was put together by Ross Haber Associates, also revealed that applications to build new housing in the borough were so few they would have little impact on the school system. The Metuchen Planning and Zoning Departments supplied those conducting the study with this information.

Sinatra concluded her opening remarks by expressing her desire to keep class size at 20 students or less.

According to Ziznewski, research shows that students who attend smaller classes do better in school, are more involved in the classroom and are more likely to go on to college.

"Smaller classes also benefit teachers. More time is used for teaching and less for discipline," Ziznewski said.

Principal Gugliara also voiced his approval of smaller classes.

He said that Campbell School was operating at "120 percent capacity" and was using spaces not intended to be classrooms, including two windowless classrooms for the second grade.

Sinatra, Ziznewski and Gugliara then discussed the possibility of sending the first-grade class to the Moss School which they all agreed would have a negative impact on the students involved.

"There’s something to be said for having schoolmates ahead of you," she said. "It gives young students someone to look up to."

The meeting was then opened to public comment.

Carol Volkland, who has taught kindergarten and first grade in the district for 30 years, spoke out against sending first graders to the Moss School and got a round of applause from a group of fellow teachers.

Overall, most parents who spoke were skeptical of the study’s results.

Sinatra called the estimates "conservative", but said that they were all the board had to work with.

Sinatra said that while renovations may have to be done at Campbell School to better accommodate the school’s enrollment needs, she won’t know for a while.

"I’ll take the information from the meeting and provide it to the board during our budget process," she said. "After that’s completed, we’ll know what has to be done."

Sinatra said that she commissioned the study for two reasons: the rise in enrollment in first grade and the possibility that the district may stage a referendum to ask voters for money to overhaul playing fields.

"We want to build new playing fields and, in order to do that, we needed a demographic study," she said. "You have to do that whenever you ask for state approval."

Some parents urged the board to take the lead in solving problems like space and class size.

"Be pro-active," said Dan Spiegal. "Don’t band-aid the problems."

Others, like Anne Newman, said the board could save money by calling on professionals in the district to get involved.

"We’ve got parents who are architects and lawyers," she said. "I’m sure they could volunteer some of their time if they’re needed."

Afterward, Sinatra said she considered the meeting a success.

"It was a great meeting," she said. "It was a wonderful opportunity for parents to voice their opinions and ideas."

Sinatra said she would take the information and comments from the meeting and present them to the members of the board for discussion. She also said there may be similar meetings for parents of Metuchen High School students.