School facility committee recommends closing Hancock Middle-Senior High

by Kate Shunney

Citing dropping enrollment and limited student offerings at Hancock Middle-Senior High School, the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee for Washington County Public Schools recommended last week the county consider closing the local school.

During a virtual committee meeting on Thursday, March 18, members voted 9-1 in favor of the closure motion.

Two members of the committee indicated they would only vote for the closure recommendation if it specifically called on the Board of Education to provide extra help to Hancock students and families to offset the impact of a possible closure.

If closed, Hancock Middle-Senior High students would ride buses to Clear Spring to attend school there.

The school system should provide extra transportation, academic and mental health support to Hancock students affected by a facility change, committee members said.

That could include an activity bus for students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities.

Committee member Kent Niedzielski said Thursday he would not support closure of Hancock without efforts to “reduce the time and length of travel and ultimately reduce the length of a student’s day.”

Committee member Joseph Jefferson changed his motion to include that request for transportation and other resources for Hancock students.

The recommendation and accompanying report will go to the Washington County Board of Education, which will choose whether to act on the closure advice.

The school board asked the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee in January to look at school facilities, especially those operating under 60% enrollment capacity, and make recommendations by mid-April about which to close or consolidate.

According to county data, Hancock Middle-Senior High employs 30 staff members to work with 235 students.

Members lay out arguments

Committee member Angela Fentress, who voted against the closure recommendation for Hancock, asked Jefferson to talk about his reasoning behind making the motion for closure.

Jefferson said he had weighed the argument that smaller class sizes at the school meant having more teacher contact and better outcomes. Based on the school’s test scores, that benefit wasn’t clear, he said.

“It seems it was doing better in some areas, but comparable in other areas to students in larger schools,” Jefferson said.

He said the smaller student body meant restricted activities in class and in athletics.

“We are putting these students in Hancock at an extreme disadvantage simply because they don’t have access to the same educational advantages and opportunities that other students have and it’s unfortunate,” Jefferson told the committee. “They deserve a wide swath of band, chorus, orchestra…they deserve everything in Hancock that kids at North High, South High, Boonsboro or any other institution in Washington County gets.”

“We have to ask ourselves—how prepared will the students at Hancock Middle-Senior be in the future when these things are reduced to only the bare minimum of educational opportunities when their counterparts in Washington County have a full plate of opportunities to gain a much better, much more in-depth and much more diverse education?” Jefferson asked.

“These students in Hancock deserve every opportunity that every other student in Washington County gets. But we know for a fact they won’t get that because the population is continuing to decrease which means their resources will continue to decrease and we can’t do anything about that,” Jefferson said.

“We can keep that school open if we think its beneficial for those students but we know based on the facts educationally that it is not beneficial to those students in its current state and it’s going to get worse,” he said.

Fentress, who has a daughter who attends Hancock schools, countered Jefferson’s argument in her remarks.

“I agree that the kids in Hancock deserve everything the other kids get. I just don’t think my child, in order to get them, should have to ride on a bus for a very long period of time to get them,” she said.

“Though I totally agree the kids in Hancock are as deserving, I’m not sure she should have to sacrifice what no one else in Washington County will have to do in order to get that,” Fentress said.

“I understand by going to Hancock you are sacrificing some things to get others,” she said.

Fentress remarked that some Hancock parents take their kids to magnet schools elsewhere in the county to get more schooling opportunities. She said not every family has the ability to do that.

“I don’t know that the sacrifice students should be asked to make should be so severe,” she said, of the extended travel time to Clear Spring and potential loss of their school.

In finalizing the committee vote, member Gail Stewart was asked to clarify if she was in favor of the closure motion.

Stewart said she was still wavering, but wanted to be sure of the recommendations to add transportation and student resources for Hancock if their school was closed.

“We already talked about using the building for something else. We still have an opportunity to reopen, rebuild the school,” Stewart said, before voting in favor of the recommendation.

The committee also voted 10-0 to recommend closing Cascade Elementary near Fort Ritchie.

In the wake of the committee’s decision, Hancock’s Save Our School committee has urged Hancock community members, parents and leaders to communicate with the Washington County Board of Education in hopes of swaying their eventual vote on the fate of the school.

Officials had earlier said any decision on school facilities wouldn’t go into effect until the 2022-2023 fiscal year.