Superintendent recommends Hancock merge elementary, middle schools & high school students go to Clear Spring

by Geoff Fox

During the May 4 Board of Education Meeting, Washington County Public Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Boyd Michael told school board officials he would recommend a modified version of closure for Hancock Middle-Senior High School.

His advice to the board was a departure from a Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee report presented to the Board of Education on April 20. That committee recommended closure of Hancock Middle-Senior High and moving those students in grades 6-12 to Clear Spring.

On Tuesday, Michael laid out a plan to give Hancock middle school students the option to stay in Hancock, or to attend Clear Spring.

Superintendent Boyd Michael addresses the Washington County school board on May 4.

He said it would be feasible to put Hancock Elementary and middle school students in the current Middle-Senior High building. High school students would attend classes in Clear Spring under his proposal.

Michael said there are over 3.5 million square feet and over 1,100 acres of facilities being operated by Washington County Public Schools.

“It is a significant amount of capital resources available to us,” he said, noting those represent billions of dollars of assets.

As good stewards of that, Michael said it’s the board’s responsibility to keep those building up and to maintain efficacy at those buildings as well.

Michael came up with modified recommendations after reviewing the lengthy FEAC report. He said they’d go into more detail during a work session scheduled for May 13.

Michael agreed with the FEAC recommendation of keeping Marshall Street School, Clear Spring High School, and Clear Spring Middle School open.

Michael noted Marshall Street serves the county’s “most medically fragile students.”

As for the Clear Spring schools, even though both schools are declining in enrollment, their location and opportunity for redistricting are sticking points.

He noted the enrollment for both schools are declining.

Michael agreed with the FEAC recommendation in closing Cascade Elementary “in an effort to improve the educational opportunities for students, while operating facilities in the most cost-effective manner possible.”

As for Hancock, Michael recommended relocating Hancock High School students to Clear Spring High School and consolidating the two schools.

He also recommended offering families of Hancock Middle School students the choice and opportunity to attend Clear Spring Middle School.

Michael said it would be possible to combine Hancock Elementary School and Hancock Middle School to create a new Hancock Elementary-Middle School that would serve students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at the current Hancock Middle-Senior High School location.

He said the work to prepare the high school building for a different could happen over the “next couple of summers.”

Michael said it’s a “very difficult” recommendation for him as he was principal at the school for four years, driving from Boonesboro every day.

He noted when he was principal at Hancock in the 1990s, the school was small even then and they worked hard to change things academically through efforts of the students, community, and staff.

It was also named a national Blue Ribbon school during his time.

No significant growth

Michael admitted he’s asked himself, “When does a small school become too small?”

“As painful as it is, I think Hancock’s reached that point,” he said.

Looking at projections, Michael said Hancock High School is projected to have an estimated 87 high school students. He compared that to the incoming freshman class next year at South Hagerstown with five to six times the total of Hancock students.

The Hancock middle school is projected to have an estimated 81 students.

Michael said he had met with Hancock Town Manager Joe Gilbert and listened to his presentation about what the future has in store for Hancock.

“I wish Hancock all the success in the world in their economic development plan,” Michael said. “But nowhere in that plan is there any significant amount of growth.”

Michael gave an example of a plan near Hagerstown where over 500 houses were planned but the area sat empty for around 20 years. It has since been rekindled with 1,100 possible homes; something Michael notes is significant growth in student numbers.

“The type of development that was shared in the presentation is just not, if everything were to happen on the home side of that, townhouse side of that, single family side of that, it still would not generate a significant amount of students in any way,” Michael said.

Michael said with the declining numbers of Clear Spring, the consolidating of the two schools would make Clear Spring a successful small school.

As for future renaming or renovations, Michael said that would be something for the board to take up later.

Michael noted there are more opportunities at Clear Spring for Hancock students.

There would also be open enrollment where middle school students would be able to choose which school they’d want to attend.

Students wouldn’t be required to attend Clear Spring, Michael added.

Michael said it’s his passion for children that won’t let the question of school size go.

“We’ve reached the point with these two schools that small is too small,” he said.

Michael said he’s absolutely confident that he and the staff can better adjust to the needs of children and “that outweighs everything else”. He also noted most people wouldn’t agree with that statement.

Public hearings set

A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, May 26, at Hancock Middle-Senior High School from 5 p.m. until at least 7:30 p.m.

Michael told board members if they could accommodate speakers, to stay as long as needed to listen to the public.

The board is scheduled to make their final vote on the FEAC report and the superintendent’s recommendation during their June 15 business meeting.