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Chariho students’ project focuses on budget process

WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — As School Committee members, parents and taxpayers have pored over the thick stack of papers that make up the 2014-15 Chariho school district budget proposal, so too have a group of eight Chariho Middle School students.

The seventh-grade boys gathered with heads bent over sheets of paper as they rehearsed their presentation at the School Committee meeting last Tuesday night, which included recommendations to reinstate the educator and dean positions that were cut at the middle school. Specifically, the group asked the committee to put $211,310 back into the budget for staff positions, and add $84,524 in employee benefits for various educators.

The $55 million budget proposed by Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci, called for a reduction in the two full-time dean positions, as well as eliminating the equivalent of 3.3 positions in certified staff and a fractional reduction in support staff.

The students’ presentation was the culmination of a several-month-long project in the middle school’s Highly Capable Program, which seeks to provide challenges for students through differentiated, out-of-the classroom instruction. In the seventh and eighth grades, students sign up for a Virtual High School online course, or conduct a group research project.

This year, eight students decided to center their research around the 2014-15 school district budget process, and make a researched recommendation to the superintendent and School Committee.

The group worked together to research and prepare their suggestions for close to two months of meetings occurring three to four times per week.

Clustered around the podium last week in collared shirts and sneakers, they explained the research that led to their suggestions, including the importance of these staff and administrative roles in maintaining small class sizes.

“Each and every one of us has seen improvements in our grades in algebra class this year,” said Mathew Dickerman, noting the drop in class size from last year to 15 students led to a 3 percent to 7 percent increase in their grades.

“Just as a balloon fills up with air, expands and eventually bursts, the same thing will happen with class size,” added Devin DiBiasio, using the analogy to show how increasingly large class sizes will reach a level where they are no longer as effective for learning.

The group also credited the middle school’s 2013 New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) scores — in which 89 percent of students tested proficient in reading and 77 percent in math — to the support of their teachers and deans. Echoing other public comments regarding the impact of the two deans on the school’s number of disciplinary referrals, another student pointed out that while it used to take at least a week for administration to respond to complaints, the process now begins within one day thanks to the work of the deans.

“As crazy as it may seem, they’re our friends, too,” DiBiasio said. “These teachers are completely worth using something from the surplus for.”

Ricci described the students’ presentation as articulate and well-researched.

“It’s a very complex topic that many adults struggle to understand,” Ricci said of the budget proposal. “I admire their intellect and their perseverance and their grit.”

Though the School Committee voted 7 to 1 to pass the budget with the cuts, the students answered with a resounding chorus of “yes” when asked if they had learned something from their project.

“I think it went very well,” Dickerman said, though he admitted he was a little nervous beforehand.

Besides Dickerman and DiBiasio, the group included Kody Gordon, Nicholas and Joseph Sylvia, Michael Gomez, Riley Hughes and Connor Allamby.

The $55 million budget will go before voters in Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton in a referendum scheduled for April 8.

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