More than 200 students descended upon the twin campuses comprising the First Branch Unified District (FBUD) on Wednesday morning to mark the first official day of K-8 classes in the recently-created district that merged the schools of Tunbridge and Chelsea.
Chelsea’s academic year kicked off with a school-wide assembly where Principal Mark Blount introduced each of the new students, especially those in kindergarten, who would be joining the “Chelsea school family,” before reminding all students to give the priceless gifts of friendship, cheerfulness, listening, and affection during the year ahead.
After the assembly, students were joined by faculty, staff, and parents for a short parade past all the landmarks of downtown Chelsea before slowly filing into their respective classrooms and settling in for the new year.
At Tunbridge Central School— Chelsea’s sister campus in the district— students arriving for their first day were greeted by another new arrival, Principal Joanne C. Melanson, who brings nearly 40 years of education experience after serving as interim principal at South Royalton School last year.
Chelsea School staff and faculty gather for a cheer at center court as they prepare for a new year as a K-8 school on Wednesday morning. (Herald / Dylan Kelley)
“This is my first day, too!” she said as she introduced herself to the students arrayed in the school’s gymnasium and greeted each of the assembled classes with a cheer and laying out some of her goals for the year. Taking a moment to speak more intimately with the school’s eighth grade class, Melanson noted that the school’s eldest students were akin to upperclassmen and would become a critical part of her plans to form a principal’s advisory committee, which would help inform her decisions in the coming year.
One eighth grade student, Taylor West, tentatively raised her hand and asked if TCS staff could “slow down the Earth so we can spend more time here.” “I’ve been in this building for nine years,” she said as the assembly wrapped up. “I don’t want it to be my last year here.”
The start of the academic year for the district, which witnessed the closure of Chelsea High School earlier this year, marks the beginning of a new system along the Route 110 corridor. For Chelsea, that means scaling back from its high school configuration and retooling the faculty and staff to fit the new K-8 student body, Blount said.
“Since we were a K-12 school, [this year] we lost an entire high school faculty,” he said Tuesday, estimating that the school will now host approximately 118 elementary and middle school students. “We’re a smaller staff then we were as a K-12. The board reduced it proportionately to what the enrollment was projected to be.”
Reflecting those proportional adjustments are a number of budget-based reductions to the remaining staff and faculty, including shifting the art and nurse positions from full-time to 0.8 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions respectively. Other changes include scaling back the English Language Learner (ELL) / reading support position from 0.8 to 0.6 FTE and allocating a portion of the time for the student support specialist and school counsellor to be spent at the school’s sister campus in Tunbridge.
In addition to these changes, Chelsea School welcomed a number of relatively new faces to its roster of faculty and staff, including administrative assistant Melissa Bickelman; library media specialist Karen Fitzgerald; and ELL / reading support specialist Jebson Interlandi.
Longtime Chelsea school presence, Emily Marshia, will serve as the school’s student support specialist, a position shared with Tunbridge along with athletic director Loretta Cruz; maintenance director Lou Maraget; and Spanish teacher Rossana Landau.
In Tunbridge, which did not require the sweeping readjustments of closing a high school, administrators welcomed special educator Sandra Farbman; paraprofessional Jennifer Burch; paraprofessional Lily Trombley; third grade teacher Chris Cassell; and long-term substitute for grades 1 and 2 Stephanie Perkins. Both schools remain on the lookout for candidates to fill a music teacher position that will be shared between the two campuses.
‘Lots of Collaboration’
For both administrators and the board, a spirit of collaboration between the two schools is high on the list of goals for the coming academic year. One step toward those goals is what administrators are calling a “curiositorium” or collaborative learning project between fifth and sixth grade students from both Tunbridge and Chelsea.
“They have a well-thought-out collaborative unit on water that is going to [hold] a full week [of shared learning],” said Blount, who also noted that an additional collaboration, dubbed “Branching Out,” will engage seventh and eighth grade students in fostering a greater connection between the schools, eventually culminating in a hike along the Long Trail.
“Each school has their own identity … we realize that and we honor that,” said Melanson, who looks forward to working further with Blount to find different ways of getting the communities to work together.
“We’re trying … to bring a lot of the outside in,” she explained. “The outside becomes the classroom. Any time we can get our students outside and learning—that’s what we’re hoping to do.”
The sense of outside-the-box and across-the-town-line collaboration even filters up to school board chair Kathy Galluzzo, who, also cites the curiositorium and Branching Out programs.
“The teachers spent a lot of time planning that out this year,” she said. “Bring the kids, [kindergarten though eighth grade] together, [and] get the teachers working to- gether and collaborating. Lots of collaboration is our goal.”
Galluzzo also said—even though one doesn’t exist just yet—that a merged middle school is still on the minds of those thinking beyond the current academic year.
“We’re taking a hard look at working with the Tarrant Foundation on what a merged middle school looks like, or a different type of middle school,” she said, asserting that no specific plans have been fleshed out yet.
“[Merging middle schools] doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be in the same building,” she said. “But what more can we offer by combining the kids?”
For Galluzzo, the final geographic location of a merged middle school, in either Tunbridge or Chelsea, is the least important detail moving forward. Creating a system that provides a great school for First Branch students involves far more than picking a physical location, she said.
“Act 46 was exhausting,” she said. “But now we’re at the point where we can start talking about [questions like] ‘what does this look like for our two schools now? How can we make this great?’ We already had two good schools, how can we make them better?”
-- DYLAN KELLEY