As parents and residents in Lower Merion, we would like to address the issue of overcrowding that is negatively impacting our students and our communities — and will only be exacerbated over the coming years.
Research states that student achievement improves with increased student engagement and the personalization of education. Major factors affecting achievement include teacher quality, class sizes, and the environment where a child studies. We are grateful for our amazing teachers and the school board's dedication to small class sizes.
Overcrowding in schools reduces enthusiasm for life-long learning and a student's ability to pay attention and achieve academically. We are already seeing the effects: lost instructional time, limited access to programs and extracurricular activities, loss of green space, and poorly timed and crowded breaks. Teachers and staff report safety concerns, decreased satisfaction, and diminishing support. Traffic congestion and pedestrian safety issues in our neighborhoods continue to rise.
Increased enrollment is on the horizon and time is of the essence.
Most parents and residents in Lower Merion do not want to take Stoneleigh, as has been proposed, but we do want a suitable solution that does not include cramming students onto small properties.
Luckily, we have been presented with a rare opportunity: salable land for a third middle school at 1860 Montgomery Avenue. A school at this location achieves our educational needs with the least disruption to students. It resolves overcrowding at our elementary and middle schools given its shift to a 5th-8th grade model — a configuration supported by research when transitional and programmatic supports are in place. A third middle school also gives students additional field space and prevents more congestion in the eastern part of the district.
We ask Superintendent Copeland and the Lower Merion school board directors to act upon the following:
1. Purchase 1860 Montgomery Avenue for a third middle school prior to the Lower Merion board of commissioner's decision on the Class I historic resource designation. If this is not feasible, meet with the Board of Commissioners to clarify why a new middle school will require the estate to remain a Class II resource.
2. Propose three designs for a middle school at 1860 Montgomery Avenue from multiple architects. Select the design that is the most strategic, flexible, and financially appropriate. The final design should pay homage to the realistic use of the parcel and surrounding neighborhood and should be one that the Villanova community would welcome and be proud to call its own. We understand that the school board is hoping to build a school that takes advantage of every new innovation. While attractive, Superintendent Copeland's stated desire for the middle school of the future, which includes a fitness center and "pods," should not prevent us from building what we so critically need to maintain our current schools and programs. Nor should such enhancements come at the expense of a treasured public garden like Stoneleigh.
3. Report and share student projections for three 5th – 8th middle schools.
4. Be patient regarding future salable field space and restore trust in this community by taking the eminent domain of Stoneleigh off the table.
5. Create a diverse committee of residents to work with the school board to find the best solution to our enrollment challenges. Real relationships and collaboration takes effort, but as stakeholders, we must also share the responsibilities of the school district's mission to meet or exceed educational standards while heeding our financial limitations. Community support or "buy-in" is essential, because if we are asked to accept a solution, which may or may not include a referendum, plans to resolve overcrowding must be meaningful as well as practical for the community as a whole.
Our intent is to show support for a creative and innovative middle school at 1860 Montgomery Avenue. School expansions are not the answer, as overcrowded schools negatively affect our students, staff, core space, green space, programmatic planning, and the traffic and parking in our neighborhoods, as well as the value of our homes. We can do so much better. Our schools are not just buildings, just like public gardens are not just open spaces. These are environments for learning and growing; they are places where we gather and connect as a community. They are both important.
Xandra O'Neill and Lauren Fenning are parents of Lower Merion students. This is an edited version of a letter read at Monday night's school board meeting. As of press time, more than 200 other parents had co-signed.