Students will ask Bethlehem School Board to reconsider program shutdown
DELMAR – Bethlehem Central School District high school Lab School students will attend Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting hoping to reverse or modify the decision to phase out the alternative school within a school. Since January 23, when School District Superintendent Jody Monroe announced to stunned students and parents that Lab School will stop enrolling new students and phase out over two years beginning in 2024, Lab School students have been taking action. They have created a petition, written letters to the School Board and superintendent and will attend the February 7 board meeting to exercise the skills of persuasion and public speaking they say they have learned in Lab School.
Today’s Lab Schoolers enrolled because of the program’s project based learning, small class sizes, field trips, community service, research opportunities and sense of community. They extol learning to conduct research, create a presentation and speak publicly — opportunities they claim are not afforded by regular high school classes.
“I knew nothing about research, but now I feel I can somewhat confidently write a research paper,” said freshman Jude McLaughlin.
Students also said Lab School students engage more in the classroom than regular high school students. Sophomore Xrysanthi Sokaris said in Lab School, unlike her regular high school classes, students are not asleep, not on their phones, and participate in class discussions so they learn more.
Apart from forfeited academic benefits, “community” is the resounding loss all students interviewed spoke about. “We are like a family,” said Sokaris. She said with the family environment students learn more and take more risks because “you don’t mind messing up.” “If you mess up in regular class, it’s uncomfortable for everyone,” she said.
McLaughlin echoed that sentiment. “People have my back…I’m not afraid to mess up in front of them because we are really comfortable with each other.”
Students say they were told Lab School is closing because of low enrollment, but fault the District for failing to advertise Lab School to eighth graders. In response to a second round of written questions from Spotlight, Monroe described Lab School marketing efforts as “vigorous”, but said the number of students enrolled has dropped from 99 in 2007 to 57 today. In the District’s January 24, 2024 public announcement of Lab School’s closing, current enrollment was stated as 62 students.
When asked what they would have done if they were the Superintendent faced with low Lab School enrollment, students responded they would have had guidance counselors speak with students about enrolling, advertise it more, merge smaller classes, and change perceptions of it. “People think Lab School is for people who slack off or for the weird kids,” said Sokaris. “It’s the opposite. You have to keep a 85 GPA or you get kicked out. Lab School has not been advertised or sold correctly.”
McLaughlin said that at a January 29 Lab School student/ teacher community meeting, Lab School Coordinator and science teacher David Lendrum said he was told by the District that the issue was that with so few students in a class, it is not financially viable to operate the Lab School if teachers are teaching 11 students when they can be teaching a class of 20. But parents who attended the January 23 meeting with Superintendent Monroe challenged that, asserting regular high school classes are running with class sizes as low as 14 and even 11 students. Parents said that in response, Monroe said that was untrue.
In response to written questions from Spotlight News Monroe said, “What I stated at the meeting with parents and students was that as a general rule, the high school does not run courses with fewer than 17 students, however, there are some exceptions to that rule.” She also said that 81% of Lab school core courses have fewer than 17 students while 84% of non-Lab School core courses average 17 or more students per section. She did not address regular high school class section sizes in non-core courses.
Students also pointed to the District’s failure to schedule electives around Lab School classes, which they believe forced several potential freshmen to take an elective, like Spanish, over Lab School. “They have scheduled us before…the scheduling problems could have been resolved,” said McLaughlin.
Monroe also said in a second round of responses to Spotlight News, “With so few students, the program is not serving its intended purpose of providing a smaller school community that features a heterogeneous mix of students, one that is reflective of the wider student body. With such a limited number of enrollees, this heterogeneous mix is not possible.”
“That is so wrong,” said junior Julia Siegel. “The entire point of Lab School is to have a smaller community.” Siegel said that statement also does not account for Lab School’s “emotional diversity.” “We Lab Schoolers share some common interests, but we have learned to appreciate each other’s differences,” Siegel said.
Lab School students also described differently Monroe’s statement made in response to a first round of written questions from Spotlight that the decision to close Lab School was made by the District’s administrative team “in consultation with Lab School faculty.” Several students interviewed said they were told by teachers at the January 29 community meeting that closing Lab School was not their decision and they had no say in it. One student said the teachers also told them that the teachers met with the Superintendent and the Superintendent told them about the closing, it was not their decision and they could not do anything about it. That student said a teacher said that if the teacher had a say in the decision the teacher would still be working in the program, but is not. Another student said the teachers were upset about the decision and that a teacher said it was their paycheck and they cannot go against the Board.
When asked about the accuracy of her response in the first round of written questions from Spotlight that the decision to close Lab School was made by “the district’s administrative team in consultation with lab school faculty” Monroe responded “my original statement is true.”
Under the phase out plan, sophomores and juniors will complete their high school education in Lab School. This year’s freshmen will be re-integrated into regular high school classes beginning in the next school year. Regardless of class year, Lab School students are unhappy about that. “I will stay in it, but I don’t think it will be the same with underclasses missing,” said sophomore Myles McCarthy. “Lab School goes beyond just my grade for me because Lab School is a community and so many people at different grade levels get along like a family.”
McCarthy said that ability to get along with different aged peers carries over to the future and “teaches you how to get along with others and co-workers like in life.”
Sokaris agreed that having to get along with people in different age groups teaches you how to navigate social situations “appropriately” and how to “act like adults and resolve a situation like adults and not like toddlers.” She remarked that upperclassmen and freshmen will lose benefits derived from mentoring opportunities, like helping out freshmen with school work, group skits and getting used to high school.
Freshman Miriam Cole said she has friends in all four grades, which allows her to ask questions about Lab School and school work.
Lab School’s students are not surrendering and will try to persuade the Board to either reinstate lab school or at least grandfather in this year’s freshman class. McLaughlin said their teachers told them that they have given the students the tools to advocate for themselves and that they now need to use those tools.
“It’s unfair that juniors and sophomores get to finish in Lab School and if they knew enrollment was bad they should have cut it off because it’s so hard to know this is so great, but we can’t have it,” McLaughlin, a freshman, said.
Cole also hopes the Board will at least let freshmen finish the program through their senior year. She said closing is particularly unfair to enrolled freshmen because they had to get used to a new school when moving from middle school to high school and now will have to “do it all over again.”
However, students remain pessimistic. “It doesn’t seem like that will happen. At the [January 23] meeting, it seems like the decision had been made,” said McCarthy.
When asked whether they would not have enrolled in Lab School if they had known it would be phased out, students interviewed said they benefited from even a short time in Lab School. “I made a lot of friends and learned a lot of valuable lessons that I would not have gotten in regular school,” said McLaughlin. Sokaris agreed. “At least I have had the time to be in the program even if it is for a little bit of time, at least I got that rather than nothing at all.”
“I was never excited to go to school before Lab School,” said McLaughlin. “Now, everyday I say I am so excited to go to school, even if nothing special is going on and even if it’s just a regular school day.”