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HWRSD calls 'audible,' restores programs

Date: 5/17/2011

May 16, 2011

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM — Strike up the band.

Thanks to what was called creative solutions in the eleventh hour, the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) and School Committee were able to "call an audible at the line of scrimmage" and announce that they were able to save several positions and programs slated to be cut, including the fifth grade instrumental music program at Wilbraham Middle School, at a May 12 public hearing at the Minnechaug Regional High School auditorium.

"We're aiming at an ever-moving target and we have to be creative in how we use our budget dollars," Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea said.

School Committee Chairman Peter Salerno explained that the committee voted to draw somewhere between $470,000 and $490,000 from the district's reserve contingency fund to help solve the $1.5 million budget gap, which led to the possibility of several programs at multiple grade levels to be cut.

"I must tell you the reserves will be thin," he said. "This is not the time to celebrate that money, but it needs to be used to prevent the district from spiraling down a path that would lead to an inferior product for the students of our district."

The move restores the position held by Melissa Villamaino, who had been informed on April 15 that she would be dismissed at the end of the school year.

Wilbraham Middle School student Jake Grycel approached the microphone to thank the School Committee and the School Department's administrative staff for continuing to support the program and later asked O'Shea how long the measures taken would keep the program running.

O'Shea said he was unable to predict whether or not the program would be in danger in the future, but stressed HWRSD considered music an important element in the educational process.

Grycel, who has played the drums for the past five years, told Reminder Publications he was "appalled" when he learned of the program's elimination while participating in Jazz Band.

"I think it's a really important part of our community," Grycel said. "If you start at a lower grade level, your mind is more open to it."

Grycel also expressed happiness in the fact that Villamaino would remain in the district.

"Ms. V really teaches you to love your instrument," he said.

O'Shea also announced that a science and engineering and IT position would be saved with the instructor splitting time between Wilbraham Middle School and Thornton Burgess Middle School.

"This will happen with the understanding that we have to do our best to aggressively work to share," O'Shea said. "It will require adjustments, but won't affect overall scheduling."

The two schools will also share an art teacher after the original proposal called for an elimination of the position at Thornton Burgess. The department will take the savings from the retirement of Thornton Burgess' current art teacher and have one position that will serve both schools.

HWRSD also explored the possibility of cutting a second grade classroom teacher, but ultimately decided to use contingency funds to keep the position.

"We were thinking about reducing from eight classes to seven, but that could have put the district above our acceptable class size levels," O'Shea explained.

The School Committee also voted to set aside money as placeholders for two positions — one at the high school and one at the elementary level. The positions that will be funded are yet to be determined and depend upon scheduling and enrollment figures.

HWRSD did unveil a significant cut in the curriculum, however, laying out its plan to eliminate French as a foreign language option.

Seventh grade Spanish will also be cut and eighth grade Spanish will be turned into a concentrated, more intensive program that will prepare students to be able to take Spanish 2 in high school in the same way they would if they took Spanish in both seventh and eighth grade.

Eighth graders who are currently taking French will be able to continue those studies when they enter high school. Because Wilbraham Middle School's Spanish teacher is also certified in French, seventh graders taking French this year may elect to either take French in eighth grade or opt into the concentrated Spanish program. However, students who choose to take French will not be able to continue studying the language in high school.

O'Shea cited the fact that Thornton Burgess already lacks a French program and that interest in the language at Minnechaug is on the decline. Since 2005, the number of students studying French shrank from 173 to 99.

HWRSD will continue offering Latin, which O'Shea said is experiencing a resurgence in interest. The district will eventually add a non-Western language, such as Mandarin Chinese, after French is completely phased.

"This is a significant programmatic change that we will have to continue to explore and get feedback on," he said.

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