Reinventing High School for Regions

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Kirstin PryorOntario County’s discussion of regionalizing high schools has made a few headlines of late, and dovetails with potential policy moves at the state level. Part of the Rochester metro area, Ontario encompasses urban, suburban and rural communities. Its 760 square miles are home to nine school districts each with its own high school. In aggregate, these districts educate 5,500 students in grades 9-12, spending at least $50 million per year.

Their experience mirrors those of many districts across the state:

  • Decreasing enrollment. Ontario will serve 9% fewer high school students by 2020. Only one district expects enrollment to grow. Four estimate a loss of more than 20%.
  • Fiscal pressures. State aid is at risk; salary, health care, and pension costs steadily increase; mandates and expectations from NYS are rising; the recently-enacted “tax cap” limits their power to raise taxes. Stimulus funds and fund balances masked the pain, but are largely spent. Shrinking enrollments, combined with fixed costs, turn the fiscal squeeze into what appears a death grip.

Collectively, Ontario County districts have cut 320 staff positions over the past three years. Some have cut extracurriculars (the football team, in one case), or closed or reconfigured school buildings. All are exploring shared services with their municipalities or with other districts. All are concerned about preserving the opportunities they currently offer students.

  • Disparity in access to educational opportunities. State test scores indicate that every one of these districts offers a quality general education. Yet advanced courses, upper level languages, and specialized electives are expensive to deliver for districts with small enrollments, and so it is not just extracurriculars that are on the chopping block. The growing concern is that students in some areas have access to substantively less, affecting their chance to be college and career ready or compete in the global marketplace.

One of Ontario’s districts offers 77 high school courses; another offers 132. One offers 4 AP courses; another offers 17. Three of the nine districts are able to offer the robust International Baccalaureate curriculum to interested students. While all districts participate in BOCES and college partnership programs, these cannot close these gaps in access.

Exploring possibilities as a region

CGR was engaged to explore regional solutions to the problem of offering secondary school education in a largely-rural area. Framed as a strategic planning process, the communities used this as an opportunity to go back to the drawing board to imagine plausible alternatives for the future.

  • Would pooling resources and making decisions as a region enable more students to have access to more educational opportunities? Would it remove barriers to distance learning and other innovations?
  • Would a regional model save money?
  • What are the obstacles to change? What considerations need to be discussed and addressed?

Two possible regional high school models demonstrated how Ontario County could move from nine current high schools to five or six in the future. With multiple, and often conflicting goals, the models have tradeoffs, potential cost savings and potential cost increases.

Beginning to think regionally raises many questions that beg further discussion. If communities view the options as intriguing enough to merit further study, an implementation study could move forward. The details of the feasibility study can be found on the study website with a final report due out in March.

NYS pushing regional policy?

State regulation doesn’t provide guidance or a model for the creation of regional high school models. Other states have countywide districts and regional high schools, and there are a few Central High School Districts on Long Island. But since the 1940s, state law does not allow districts to form regional high schools. Without guidance from the state, questions about what body would govern and award diplomas, how regional schools would be financed, and how communities would decide and potentially transition are all unknown. State Senator Catherine Young’s bill (passed Senate, pending Assembly) would allow districts in her Western NY Senate district to develop and opt into a regional high school; a task force is working to flesh out models.

The Board of Regents just included statewide regional high school legislation in their 2012 legislative priorities.

“What ifs?” are both exciting and daunting, especially when the outcomes matter so much. We applaud Ontario County school leaders and their constituents for being proactive, for keeping open minds, and for wrestling with tough questions. The need on the ground and the interest from the State may mean we hear more as the year unfolds.

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