DELMAR –On January 23 Bethlehem Central School District Superintendent Jody Monroe announced to “shocked” and “surprised” parents and students that the High School’s Lab School program will stop enrolling new students and phase out over two years beginning in 2024-25. Parents say they believed the meeting’s purpose was to talk about bolstering enrollment, not disbanding the program.
Monroe had invited parents to attend a meeting “to discuss the current enrollment of the program, enrollment trends, and the future of Lab School.” After noting declining enrollment, the invite concluded, “Your family’s input, ideas, and feedback are necessary for constructive dialogue and continued success for our students.” Stunned attendees said the decision to shut down Lab School was made before the meeting. “It was a done deal,” said Rose Large, a parent of a senior and sophomore. “It didn’t matter what we said.”
“We definitely did not think closing was a possibility,“ said Denis Whitford, parent of a Lab School sophomore. “When you say the future of something, it means working towards a solution to the problem…enriching it instead of killing it.”
In response to written questions, Monroe said the decision to close Lab School was made in December 2023 by the District’s “administrative team in consultation with Lab School faculty.”
According to parents who attended the meeting, low enrollment was the only reason given for the closing. Parents, however, say Lab School enrollment – low for years – is no reason for discontinuation. They also said the District should have spoken to them sooner so outreach could have been made to increase enrollment and to let freshmen know Lab School was in jeopardy.
“They knew the numbers. I get that, but if that’s the message – that should have been done last January to plan for the future and not just say, sorry freshmen,” said Christine McLaughlin, parent of a lab student 9th grader.
In spring 2023, the district advised incoming freshmen families enrolling in Lab School for this school year: “It is important for incoming ninth-grade families to know that while we expect Lab School will continue as a “school within a school” throughout your child’s four years at the high school, we are not able to guarantee it. The program’s future will rely on sufficient and sustained Lab School enrollment each year through 2026-27.”
Grade 10 and 11 students currently enrolled in Lab School will be able to continue the program through to graduation in 2025 and 2026. Current grade 9 Lab students will be enrolled in regular high school classes, beginning with the 2024-2025 school year.
Monroe told meeting attendees that Lab School core course class size averages only 14 students, compared to a 20-22 student average class in the high school. Thirteen of Lab School’s 16 sections core courses have fewer than 17 students. Monroe said Bethlem does not run courses with fewer than 17 students. McLaughlin said that is inaccurate as her junior student takes a filmmaking class with 11 students and a chemistry class with 14. She also said a student at the meeting told Monroe there are classes that do not have 17 students and Monroe’s response was, “no that’s not true.”
On January 24, Monroe wrote to lab school families acknowledging, “last night’s meeting was emotional and I fully understand the frustrations of students and parents.” She indicated she appreciated suggestions on how to maintain a sense of community for current ninth grade students and those who will continue in Lab School.
That day, the District also announced on its web site that Lab School would stop enrolling new students and would be phased out. Disappointed parents said they had thought Monroe was going to listen to their concerns and reconsider the decision. McLaughlin said only the night before that announcement, Monroe had told them she would take parents’ suggestions into consideration and talk about it before making a decision. “But less than 12 hours later an announcement went out that this is what we’re doing. There was no consideration. You can’t put in any consideration when you’re sleeping eight of those 12 hours.”
In the January 24 announcement, Lab School’s demise was attributable to low enrollment, a weakening demand for the Lab School experience as more opportunities have been made available to students in the larger high school, and electives that cannot be accommodated by the Lab school schedule. Parents disputed those claims, attributing poor enrollment to the school district’s lack of communication, guidance counselors who discourage enrollment, and class scheduling errors. Large said she heard 18 students had accepted Lab School spots this year but at least six dropped out after being told a scheduling issue would force a choice between Lab School and studying a language. “You can’t tell me after all these years of running Lab School, that couldn’t be changed. Lab school doesn’t change.”
As for long term financial impact, Monroe said it is unknown because although Lab School will be phased out in its current format, a committee is being appointed to consider implementing a similar program or similar opportunities beyond 2026. Whitford said the Superintendent told parents that Lab School’s cost was “minimal” with no “significant” effect on the school budget. McLaughlin said Monroe did not respond when asked why if Lab School’s cost was not financially significant, it would not continue versus the negative impact to the students of shelving it.
Lab School employs 4.4 FTE regular high school teachers. Whitford said Monroe said no Lab School teachers would lose their jobs as a result of the closing.
In the January 24 statement Monroe promised the “decision to end the formal lab school program in its current form does not mean the end of Lab School type opportunities for students.” She said a committee of teachers at the school, including Lab School teachers, is being created to look at alternative options for providing more self-designed or project based courses of student and community experiences similar to Lab School.
Lab School was founded in 1992 to provide a small-school learning environment within the larger high school, in a setting featuring a team teaching model and project-based learning. The four year program was originally designed to accommodate between 92-120 students, which is currently 62.
Parents are mobilizing on Facebook and at a parent meeting to determine how to overturn the decision. They are collecting information on class sizes and will attend the February 7 Board of Education meeting. “I don’t know that I really have hope, but I’ll fight and do what I can to at least try,” said McLaughlin.
“I’m a parent who sees an academic program of value that’s being lost for reasons that don’t make sense to me,” said Whitford. “We have the resources, adequate resources, and this should be prioritized over some other things. This is a unique educational experience that needs to be addressed instead of cutting it.”
This is a developing story that Spotlight will continue to follow more in depth in the coming weeks.
This story was featured on page 3 of the January 31st , 2024 print edition of the Spotlight