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Dealing with a student disconnect ; Closing of 2 schools in Lockport sends friends in different directions as the district regroups

Carson Rehm and his fourth-grade friends at DeWitt Clinton Elementary School had one more year to enjoy before taking on sixth grade together at North Park Middle School.

But while many of his friends will start fifth grade at Anna Merritt Elementary, Carson, 10, will go to Washington Hunt Elementary.

He's sad to be leaving the school and teachers he has known for five years.

"I'm going to miss my best friends," he said.

Many students in the Lockport School District are facing the same situation, after the Board of Education decided that it would close two elementary schools, DeWitt Clinton on North Adam Street and John E. Pound on High Street, at the end of this school year.

Johnathan Lang, 10, Carson's friend and fellow fourth-grader from DeWitt Clinton, will move to Anna Merritt in the fall.

Parents of fourth-graders are particularly upset about the closings because their children are being separated from their friends just a year before the big move to middle school.

The School Board had little choice but to make the move. Enrollment has fallen in the district over the last decade, and the state has slashed aid by more than $4 million as it deals with a persistent budget crisis.

"I feel, at this time, we are still able to offer high-quality programs to our community," Superintendent Terry Ann Carbone said. "I don't know if that will continue next year if this [state aid] formula remains intact."

Carson and Johnathan and their mothers, Judy Rehm and Therese Lang, recently gathered around the Langs' kitchen counter to look through the DeWitt Clinton 2008-09 yearbook. The theme "Believe" is printed in big, bright letters across the front.

"The fourth-graders are the ones who have been together since kindergarten -- for five years," Lang said, "and now they're being "

"Towed away," Johnathan said, finishing his mother's sentence.

Rehm said that they found out on their own that Carson would be going to Washington Hunt, calling the district office before more information was provided during a board meeting in the spring.

Schools that will get new students in the fall have held open houses and invited families to tour the schools on their own during the summer.

Carson has made some friends from his new school playing baseball in recent weeks.

"Johnny's kind of on the lucky side because most [of his former schoolmates] are going to Anna Merritt," Lang said.

>'It's a big deal'

Lang said that she understood why the district made its choices during a tough budget year but that it will be a hard adjustment for the children and families affected.

"These kids not only are being separated for their fifth-grade class, but they'll be separated for middle school," she said. "They won't meet up until high school."

Kathie Bruning will have four children at three new schools in the fall. Her son Izaac, 10, a fifth-grader at DeWitt Clinton, will move on to sixth grade at North Park. Victoria, 9, and Olivia, 6, will move from DeWitt Clinton to Anna Merritt. Her younger son, Daniel, 7, who was in a 12-1-1 class at John Pound, will move to Roy B. Kelley Elementary.

"Victoria was angry because she's going into fifth grade; she had one more year left," Bruning said. Olivia, at first, asked to go to Kelley Elementary because second-grade teachers she knew and liked from DeWitt Clinton were being transferred to the school.

Daniel's class takes field trips with students from the other schools, so he will know some teachers from his new school.

The parents have been taking their children to as many of the school functions, concerts and open house events as possible as the school year has come to a close. "This is the last for everything," Bruning said. "It's a big deal."

In March, the School Board announced its plans for changes to the elementary schools. John Pound will house the district's universal prekindergarten program, and Carbone announced at a mid-June board meeting that Niagara County Head Start would move its Lockport program to DeWitt Clinton from its current home in Grace Episcopal Church.

DeWitt Clinton and John Pound had the lowest enrollment numbers, Carbone said. Washington Hunt was considered for closing, she said, but the higher enrollment numbers at the school would not allow the district to repurpose a second school.

The district has seen "moderate decline" in enrollment in the last 10 years, though it seems to be leveling off, Carbone said.

Rehm and Lang said that they and other parents had heard rumors of various district elementary schools closing over the years but that until this year, the rumors never proved true.

But the state's budget crisis became a problem for school districts, with cuts in aid to education sweeping across the state and forcing districts to make hard budget cuts.

The board presented a $77 million budget proposal to the public in March that was the same as last year's budget, due to cuts to the expenditure side, including closing DeWitt Clinton and John Pound. But the district also lost 10 percent of its state aid -- a $4.1 million cut. The board was unable to make up all the lost state aid, and the tax levy increased by 6.99 percent.

The community voted down the budget in May, pushing the district to a $77 million contingency budget, the same as the proposed budget. Under the contingency budget, cuts from the proposed budget -- including the closing of the two schools -- will proceed.

>Friendship bracelets

A major part of the problem, Carbone said, is the formula that the state uses to decide which districts qualify as "high need," "high wealth" and "average wealth." Lockport falls into the "average wealth" bracket, despite its 42 percent poverty rate, based on the number of free and reduced lunches that students receive in city schools.

When it comes to cuts in state aid, both "high need" and "high wealth" districts are capped.

"There was a clear pattern that 'average wealth' districts took higher cuts in state aid proportionally," Carbone said. "The burden fell directly on the taxpayers in 'average wealth' districts that were forced to make deeper cuts."

There are 100 "high need" districts in New York State, but that list has not been changed in the last decade, Carbone said.

Lockport and similar "average wealth" districts with slashed budgets and frustrated taxpayers have begun lobbying Albany to change the formula and restore this year's cuts. Carbone, Deborah A. Coder, assistant superintendent for finance and management services, and board member James F. Gugliuzza went to Albany on June 14 to meet with lawmakers.

For now, students and parents from DeWitt Clinton and John Pound have the summer to prepare for the change in the fall. Carson and his mother worked for two months to make the last day of school special for Carson's classmates. They made friendship bracelets for every child in the school -- about 300 of them.

They made the bracelets with yarn, hooks and other craft supplies donated by local businesses. Each bracelet came affixed with a small picture of the school glued inside of a bottle cap that the Rehms sewed to the bracelets. They spent 10 hours alone preparing the bottle caps.

Carson was excited to pass out the bracelets on the last day of school.

"It's our way of dealing with the sadness and turning a negative into a positive," his mother said. "He's been so busy working on it, he hasn't had time to be sad."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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