Students breaking down into tears during public comment Wednesday night didn’t dissuade the school board from voting 6-1 to cut sixth grade from Alta Elementary School.
After hearing from students and their upset parents, the Teton County School District No. 1’s Board of Trustees approved Superintendent Gillian Chapman’s recommendation to eliminate the grade from Alta starting next year.
Before the vote, sixth-graders living in Alta had three choices: Alta Elementary School, Teton Middle School in Driggs, Idaho, or Jackson Hole Middle School.
Only chairwoman Betsy Carlin voted against trimming the grade. Parents were told of the recommendation April 26 and said during public comment that the decision felt rushed, a sentiment Carlin echoed.
“I totally support the outcome of the vote, but I was voting against it because I just felt the timeline was not in the best interest of the children who would be leaving Alta Elementary at the end of this year unexpectedly,” Carlin said.
Although the initial recommendation included also cutting one of Alta’s four core teachers, that issue was not decided Wednesday.
The vote capped a flurried few weeks of outcry in Alta. Parents wrote letters, students made posters and submitted a video and many families trekked over Teton Pass for this week’s meeting. Their public sentiment was overwhelmingly to keep sixth grade, although at least one family submitted a letter saying they thought sixth-graders were ready to move to a middle school environment and supported the change.
Chapman told families at a community meeting in Alta last week that the basis for her recommendation was a decline in recent years from 65 students to 48 currently. The resulting low student-teacher ratios weren’t equitable compared to other small schools, she said.
But the discussion turned to educational quality during the school board meeting. This surprised parents, who hadn’t complained about the quality of education their children received at Alta and gave testimony to the contrary.
Tyler Trotter, 11, has a learning difference that impacts his reading, he said. Being a student at Alta has helped him get the attention he needs to succeed, he said.
“I believe I wouldn’t be where I am today without small classes and extra help,” he said.
His mother, Kim Trotter, isn’t sure where her son will attend sixth grade next year, saying “we’re in the heat of it.” He’d already decided to stay at Alta for the educational opportunities.
“He could’ve easily fallen through the cracks at a bigger school,” she said.
Private school deadlines have come and gone, and like many parents, she isn’t comfortable with her son riding a public bus so far from home.
Mother Sarah Dunn worried that the equity argument could lead to closing the school someday and called it “the first nail in the coffin of our school.”
“Our little, geographically isolated school will never have all the resources of the Jackson schools available to us over here, so is that a reason to close the school for not being ‘equitable’?” she wrote in an email. “Following the logic they used last night, it seems like their answer would eventually have to be ‘yes’.”
Dunn took the tone of the meeting personally, saying it was “devastating.”
“The way we were treated in that meeting left me feeling like the larger educational community of Teton County Wyoming, which so many of us had worked so hard to join and were proud to be a part of, had just kicked us in the stomach and told us to go away...” she wrote.
“I felt we were treated like we didn’t belong, like they saw us as a thorn in their side, an irritant, and a drain on ‘their’ resources — meaning, the resources of all of the schools on the Jackson side of Teton Pass,” Dunn wrote.
Father Devin Moncur wanted time for the community to explore more options.
At the meeting, the educational quality argument “blindsided” him and other parents, who he said felt they and their students rallied together to stay due to what was portrayed as a numbers issue. Several fifth-graders and their families signed a piece of paper saying they’d stay next year if it meant keeping the grade.
“I feel like we wasted a lot of time fighting it when we didn’t have a chance,” Moncur said.
Two of his children spoke at the meeting, advocating for their three younger siblings to have similar opportunities.
“I want them to experience the role of a leader in the school,” sixth-grader Deegan Moncur said.
“It’s making me sad that you guys might just take it away,” his seventh-grade sister, Kaila Moncur, said.
Parents felt that other items discussed in Wednesday’s meeting — a parent-teacher organization raising funds to redo the interior of Colter Elementary School, a big purchase order for a teacher resource program called AVID — only added salt to the wound.
“When we look at equity, it became really clear last night that this isn’t a budgetary issue, this is a decision that I think was made in haste because they felt very few people would be affected,” Kim Trotter said. “I respect that there are bigger decisions, but when you’re talking about cutting teachers in the same meeting that they’re talking about renovating schools and putting considerable money in other programs, when it comes to equity, it seems like the small schools are getting the short end of the stick.”