Supporters protest Martha’s Vineyard Family Center closure

Janet Hefler

About 25 people, most of them mothers of young children, presented a petition to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee at a meeting Monday, protesting the decision to close the MV Family Center (MVFC) that now operates within the school.

Superintendent of schools James Weiss explained that the decision by school officials was based on space considerations and priorities for vocational programs, as determined by student interests and enrollment.

The high school has provided space for the MV Family Center, a program run by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), since 1996. In exchange, students in the high school’s early childhood vocational program had the opportunity to experience working with young children.

However, student enrollment in the program has dwindled and is now at six students, school officials said. During the budget planning process last fall, they decided that starting next year, the early childhood vocational program will not accept any new students, so that it may be discontinued after the current students cycle through, in about two and a half years.

Monday, school committee chairman Priscilla Sylvia of Oak Bluffs said the committee would agree to accept the petition and hear the group’s remarks, but would not vote on it.

Nell Coogan of Tisbury, a lawyer and Dukes County’s legislative llaison, served as the group’s spokesman. She read the petition signed by 267 people. It asked the school committee and high school administrators to reconsider their decision and to find a way to keep the family center on the campus. “The Family Center’s presence on the high school campus needn’t be limited to a vocational program in childcare,” the petition stated. “Weaving early childhood studies directly into the high school curriculum (academic offerings such as a semester psychology or sociology course, opportunities for internships and mentoring) would appeal to a broader range of students.”

Ms. Coogan and several of the petition group’s members spoke highly of the Family Center and its programs. The Family Center provides education and support to parents of children from newborn to age 14, according to its website. Services include playgroups, parenting classes and discussion groups, and family activities. Activities are provided free of charge through grants from the Massachusetts Children’s Trust Fund and the Department of Early Education and Care.

Mr. Weiss said he informed Family Center director Marnie Toole about four years ago and MVCS Early Childhood Director Debbie Milne about two years ago that the high school’s early childcare vocational program was not growing enough to justify its continuation. He said he officially notified the MV Family Center in January that it must be out of the high school space by 2014.

“The high school is not saying the Family Center is not an important program; it certainly is,” Mr. Weiss said. “It fulfills a large need for families on the Island, and maybe it could be relocated to other places. It was and is presently not only a Family Center, but a lab for our students. If that need goes away, we have to look at other alternatives.”

Mr. Weiss said the issue is about how to make the best use of the high school’s space for programs that benefit the most students. In addition to other vocational program possibilities, there are a number of others, including the Rebecca Amos Institute and some special education programs, that have a need for space.

“We’d like to get a vocational program that has more than four to five students interested in it,” Mr. Weiss. “We think a certified nursing assistant program meets that.”

That program would be a win for the high school, the community and Martha’s Vineyard Hospital (MVH), he noted. Providing the education and training for students could lead to local jobs for them and help fill gaps in personnel that the hospital sometimes experiences.

Ms. Toole said the petition was a way to express that a lot of people are interested in having a dialogue with school officials on how the Family Center will continue.

“The petition is a well thought out idea, and the high school has to give it some consideration,” Mr. Weiss agreed. “But we also have to look at other needs. We’d like to enter into a dialogue, but it must have many facets, and look not only for a way for the center to stay here but also at other alternatives.”

School committee members Susan Mecier and Priscilla Ackermann offered to serve on a committee with Family Center representatives to look at the options.

“Maybe someone who sees this on TV will step forward and offer space,” Ms. Sylvia said. “We’re asking for a miracle out there.”

In other business, girls’ hockey team members Maggie Johnson, Celia Mercier, Rilla Hammett, Olivia Cimeno, and Lily Gazaille presented the high school with a framed article from The Times about their participation in the MIAA state tournament, along with photo of the team.

The meeting’s “Student Spotlight” featured senior Emma HallBilsback, whose many activities include participation in the SafeRides program and on Governor Deval Patrick’s Youth Council as the Dukes County representative.