Parents oppose potential cuts to Mehlville’s gifted program

STRETCH cuts could cause some to move out of district.

By EVAN YOUNG

While the Mehlville Board of Education has scheduled a second work session to discuss possible budget cuts, five parents spoke out strongly last week against potential cuts to the district’s gifted program.

A board work session tentatively is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5, at the Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.

The board will continue its discussion of a contingency plan that outlines potential cuts to district staff, programs and services. The budget reductions are designed to offset projections the district will deplete its operating reserves by 2013.

One possible cut would affect the district’s STRETCH — Supplementary Teacher Resource for Educationally Talented Children — gifted program.

The district would eliminate 3.6 middle school STRETCH teachers for a cost savings of $180,000. District officials have said the middle school STRETCH program could be streamlined into the existing curriculum.

“Nothing on the list to be cut is an item that we think we want to do without. But the reason that ended up on the list is because in our attempt to serve the needs of gifted students at the middle school, we do have some what we call ‘challenge courses’ there that we didn’t used to have,” Superintendent Terry Noble told the Call.

“And actually that’s one of the best ways to serve gifted kids is to make sure they’re in rigorous, challenging courses,” he said. “That’s the way it works at the high school. We don’t have a pullout program for gifted students at the high school because they can take those advanced courses and that’s how you challenge them. So while it’s not perfect probably, that’s the thinking behind it.”

But five parents told the board last week they were strongly opposed to any cuts to the program.

Ken Smith, a Bierbaum Elementary School PTO member, contended children now in STRETCH would “become disenchanted with the education process” and possibly begin to exhibit behavior problems.

“If you no longer keep their brains active, keep them challenged, we’re going to lose hundreds of kids who would normally go on to get scholarships, go on to get a good college education (and) normally go on to be pillars of the community,” Smith told the board. “STRETCH, especially at the middle schools, is vital to the community in my opinion.”

Bierbaum PTO member Marie Dilg, who has two children in STRETCH, said the program has value even though it’s not state-mandated.

“If you stop, as Ken said, challenging our brightest students, you could lose them. They will become bored. They will drop out. And the state does pay attention to that,” Dilg said.

“If the parents aren’t happy with the services and the educational programs their children are receiving, we’re forced to look at other options: private school, parochial school or even moving out of the district, which some parents have mentioned …,” she said.

“I think that we’re here — and you’re (the board) here, especially — to oversee our students’ education. Our taxes are supposed to pay for that education, and students are guaranteed a right to that. Before you consider eliminating an educational program, why not take a look at some of the athletic programs? I didn’t see any of those on the list that was circulated.

“Your STRETCH students are often the leaders in their school,” she concluded. “They set the example. They bring in high test scores, pride and honor to a district that greatly needs all three. I just don’t understand why you would want to do anything to push those students or those parents away.”

Rachel Francis, whose daughter is in STRETCH, told the school board she was “shocked” to learn there could be cuts to the program — and may move out of the district if they’re made.

“I honestly think that this is something that could force myself to look at moving out of the district,” she said. “STRETCH was one of the reasons I moved into the district when I was looking at different places to move for my kids’ education. The fact that Mehlville had the STRETCH program was a big reason why we chose this district, and if it’s eliminated — especially in the critical middle school years — I think it’s going to force us to look elsewhere, and that’s not something I want to do because we are committed to this school district.”

Bierbaum PTO member Susan Bockwoldt said her daughter’s STRETCH class is the only one in which the seventh-grader “feels very comfortable” because its small size means she gets extra attention from her teacher.

“My concern is that if we eliminate the middle school STRETCH program, we’re going to lose some of these kids by the time they get to high school,” Bockwoldt said. “They won’t have that middle bridge there to keep them interested in school in general, and then also pursuing those (Advanced Placement) classes and college credit classes at the high school level.”

Tim Ferguson and his family moved to Mehlville a year and a half ago.

However, he said they “definitely” would consider moving out of the district if cuts were made to middle school STRETCH, of which his daughter is a part.

A school district in Michigan where his family previously lived faced a budget crunch similar to Mehlville’s, Ferguson said.

“Rather than just having the school board decide what was going to go and what was going to stay, they did a — and I know you guys aren’t big on surveys after your last one — but they did a districtwide survey to every resident,” Ferguson told the board. “It’s one thing to say what you’d like to see … It’s another thing to give their feedback on what are they willing to give up.”

Parents were asked, among other things, whether they would be willing to pay for their children to participate in sports and extracurricular activities, Ferguson said.

“Through that process, I think the board got a lot of good feedback later on, and the next time they put out a village proposal, people trusted that they were going to do what the residents thought they’d like them to do, and the next proposal passed,” he said. “I just wanted to throw that out there for your consideration.”

Board member Drew Frauenhoffer, who has two daughters in the elementary school STRETCH program, later thanked the five parents who addressed the board and said he shared their concerns.

“I’m obviously not an unbiased person when it comes to STRETCH,” he said. “I definitely share the same feelings. It’s interesting when we look at what we do for those kids that struggle in this district, those kids with special needs, I hear all the great things that we do. I really think the STRETCH kids are children that have special needs too, and that we need to do all we can as a district to invest in them.

“Some of the same things you commented about tonight about considering whether or not to leave the district, as a parent, again, those thoughts go through my mind, that if something were to happen, I don’t want my children to suffer …,” Frauenhoffer continued.

“I can’t envision that as being one of those things that’s easily removed, but I think that’s something we need to protect as a district as we move forward. So I definitely appreciate the five of you coming out tonight and talking about that because that is something I’ve noticed: The STRETCH parents are involved and engaged in their children’s welfare and the welfare of this district. We’re going to need that as we move forward, so thank you all.”

Board of Education President Tom Diehl added, “I just want to echo what Drew said about STRETCH.

“My son went through it, and I know those teachers do a phenomenal job. This is one item that was proposed out of many, and in January we’ve got another workshop to look at those numbers closely and then do what we can,” he said. “We need to do what we can to make sure we don’t hurt our academic programs through these cuts.”