Alta School may shrink to K-5

Alta Elementary School first-grader Inger Peterson advertises the frozen treats she has for sale at the school’s mini mall in 2014. Teton County School District No. 1 superintendent is recommending the school stop offering 6th grade and a core teacher be cut next year.

The Alta community on the west side of the Tetons is grappling with substantial proposed changes to its elementary school.

Teton County School District No. 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman has recommended the school board remove sixth grade from the school and cut a core teacher. A vote is scheduled at the board’s regular monthly meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

The recommendation, Chapman said, is due to declining enrollment at the school. It has dropped from 65 students in recent years to the 48 that are currently enrolled. There are seven sixth-grade students this year and eight fifth-graders, only a few of whom have formally committed to staying next year.

“It’s not based on the budget,” Chapman said. “It’s looking at numbers, trends, how do we best use our staff. When I look at the numbers at Alta, they are on a downward trend. It’s not equitable for me to keep four staff for between 38 and 40 kids and have a 10:1 or a 9:1 student-teacher ratio when I look at other small schools and their ratio is much higher.”

The father of a fifth-grader said at a community meeting last week that his daughter’s decision changes “every week,” making it hard to estimate next year’s number. It could be as low as 37 or as high as 41.

Enrollment at all schools, including Alta, ebbs and flows.

“Right now, we have a lot of really small class sizes,” Principal Jenna Beck said. “That’s just kind of how it goes some years. Some years we ride it, and some years we talk about making difficult decisions. We’ve rode it for a long time.”

Four trustees and Chapman traveled to Alta last week to hear from roughly 40 concerned parents, some of whom went to the school as children or teach in the Idaho school district down the road. Some students came, too. The dialogue was emotional and heated at times.

“It’s a really big deal for us over here,” mother Sarah Dunn said. “We know we’re a small community compared to Jackson, but we don’t feel like we should be treated like we don’t count, and it’s kind of feeling that way.”

Sixth-graders living in Alta have three choices right now: Alta Elementary School, Teton Middle School in Driggs, Idaho, or Jackson Hole Middle School.

If they attend Teton Middle School, Jackson’s school district pays Teton School District 401 in Idaho roughly $12,500 per child — Idaho’s out-of-state tuition rate. The state of Wyoming then reimburses for that expense. That option began between seven and eight years ago.

If the students attend middle school in Jackson, there’s no school bus because there aren’t enough students for the route. If they choose to take the START bus, their family is reimbursed by the school district for doing so.

Alta families are passionate about the school. They say it’s the heart of the community and, for many, a key reason for moving there.

Parents urged the board to wait at least a year before making any drastic changes and said they felt “blindsided” by a letter sent April 26 informing them of the superintendent’s recommendations. Mother Cate Stillman started an online petition that states it is a “plea to the school board to honor this small school’s tradition, rather than farming out our 6th grade education to the state of Idaho.”

Families are somewhat split on whether the sixth-grade Idaho option should exist in the first place, with a handful saying it’s a contentious choice that consumes fifth grade for students and their parents. Some promised to rally around the school and convince others to keep their kids there for sixth grade if that’s what it takes. They also discussed getting rid of the choice to leave entirely.

“I wouldn’t put it past our community,” one mother said during the meeting. “We could. We’re a small community that believes in this school.”

But others said it’s up for the family to decide the best school for their child’s educational and social needs, and that their children thrived heading to middle school in Driggs instead of staying in Alta.

No matter what happens with sixth grade, there’s strong consensus around the desire to keep four teachers at the school and not go down to three. Parents like the small class sizes and say combining kindergarten and first grade under one teacher would erode the quality of the education and the school’s reputation.

“Even though it’s done, it’s not the best for children,” said Anne Goodell, mother of a current and former Alta student. “If I was moving to the community, it would not draw me. It’s making the school less attractive to new families.”

— See the full story in Wednesday’s Jackson Hole News&Guide.

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079 or schools@jhnewsandguide.com.

Kylie Mohr covers the education and health beats. Mohr grew up in Washington and came to Wyoming via Georgetown. She loves seeing the starry night sky again.

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