Members of the Frederick County Board of Education are grappling with one of the most difficult questions a public official can face: When is it time to close a treasured community school?
Sabillasville Elementary School is in the northern reaches of the county, far from the busy streets of the city of Frederick, and even farther from the bustling suburb of Urbana.
The tiny school sits behind an old wooden house on Md. 550, across the road from Scenic View Orchard. It is in many ways an idyllic setting, a throwback to an earlier time in our community.
But the numbers facing the school board as it discusses the future of this school are daunting. Built to house 160 students half a century ago, the student body today is down to 78, and the future is not bright.
Next fall, the school is expected to enroll 74 students. Superintendent Terry Alban said the enrollment numbers are projected to continue declining over the next five years and into the future.
How low is too low?
As Sabillasville dwindles to the size of a one-room schoolhouse, what kind of education can it offer its remaining students? Those are questions that school staff and ultimately the members of the board are going to have to come to grips with.
Board President Brad Young said at a recent meeting: “Where we’re at now, looking at potentially 70 or 80 students, it not only becomes expensive to operate, but it also becomes detrimental in many ways to the students and the families and the staff.”
Of course, many parents feel differently, believing that closing the school would be a terrible loss to the community. Parents Heather Sparkman, Kelsey Norris and Alisha Yocum told our reporter that Sabillasville is about more than enrollment numbers.
“I mean [the school] is the center to our community,” Yocum said. “We don’t have anything else. ... How can you not take that into consideration?”
We know that is true, and that is a point that school board members need to consider. But at some point keeping a school that is so small does mean diminished educational opportunity for the kids.
Already Sabillasville Elementary has just four classes in total — a split kindergarten and first grade, a split first and second grade, one large third grade, and a split fourth and fifth grade.
Students flow from teacher to teacher and classroom to classroom depending on the time of day and what grade they’re in. According to Barbara Doney and Michelle Mapes, who are both teachers there, staff tends to teach specific subjects instead of grades.
For example, Mapes teaches math at almost every grade, while Doney teaches writing and science.
If the projections for the fall of 2020 are correct, Alban warned that the school could go down to three teachers.
“It is going to be very, very difficult to ensure that those students are receiving the same access and opportunities to our curriculum that students in a school with more classes would have,” she said.
As we said, this is a very tough decision. Does the board essentially gut a community by closing the school, or does the system struggle to give children a quality education?
Are there other options, including redistricting with neighboring districts that are realistic? It is a long way from Sabillasville to the nearest neighboring schools, so transportation issues are a real concern, especially in the winter months, which can be bad in the mountains.
The county has a process to analyze the issue, and the board has begun going through the necessary steps. Parents need to be informed and stay involved.
Our hope is that the school can be kept open as long as viable. But we can’t have the children hurt by receiving an inferior education.