Board approves grade realignment at the Cooke and Rutherford schools 

At its March 19 meeting, the Monticello Board of Education moved to realign the grade structure at the district’s two village elementary schools. Currently, both the George L. Cooke Elementary School and the Kenneth L. Rutherford Elementary School serve students in grades K-5. Under the new realignment, the Cooke school will serve students in grades K-2, and the Rutherford school will serve grades 3-5. The district’s other elementary school, the Emma C. Chase Elementary School in Wurtsboro, would not be impacted by this change and will remain a K-5 school.   

The Board believes that returning to a K-2/3-5 alignment would help to resolve some of the challenges facing these two schools, including insufficient space, inequitable class sizes between the two buildings and below-average proficiency scores.  

“We know that many of our kids are entering kindergarten with little school experience,” Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Silver said. “When they’re beginning their education already at a disadvantage, it’s that much more difficult to get them to catch up. We believe that by going back to the old model, we can improve their foundation in these critical early years so that they’re in a much better position by the time they enter third grade. The goal is to accelerate, rather than remediate, learning.”  

With current class sizes at each school varying by as many as eight students per grade level, and a higher-than-average percentage of students receiving special education services, the realignment would create more equitable class sizes and services.  

For many years, the Cooke and Rutherford school served grades K-2 and 3-5 before the alignment was changed to its current K-5 configuration at each school. The change happened shortly after the Cornelius Duggan Elementary School was closed in White Lake, in hopes that the change would help improve student performance. However, the expected improvements never materialized.  

“This has been an on-going discussion for years and was something that we hoped would have been addressed through the capital bond projects that the Board presented the community,” Board President Lori Orestano-James said. “We know that our students are not where we’d like them to be in terms of academic achievement, and we are, and have always been, committed to rectifying that. It’s not a decision we made lightly. We are fortunate to have an excellent team of dedicated teachers at every school, and this move will allow us to emphasize an early childhood and an intermediate childhood curriculum that will provide a more individualized, equitable education for each of our students.” 

Effective July 1, 2020, current Cooke Principal Chris Palmer will become Principal of the Rutherford School, while current Rutherford Principal Michelle Knowlton will become Principal of Robert J. Kaiser Middle School. The Board accepted current RJK Principal Nick Millas’ letter of resignation at the meeting. The administrative team will embark on a search for the next principal of the Cooke school. While the realignment is intended to be effective in the 2020-21 school year, it remains to be seen if the coronavirus and associated district closures will have an impact on the timeline. 

“We thank Mr. Millas for his years of service to the district and its students,” Dr. Silver said. “Despite some of the initial inconveniences we may see with this move, I truly believe that this move will allow us to create a world-class primary school that will set the foundation to improve outcomes for all of our students,” he said. “I recognize that this is disappointing for some in our community who expressed their concerns to the administrative team and Board. We heard you, and we considered all of your feedback. However, ultimately, we believe that this change in the best interest of both our students and our taxpayers.”