Little Compton's tuition program unique in the state

Out of town parents can send children to Pre K through eighth grade program for $6,000 per year

By Ted Hayes
Posted 8/30/21

When Mark and Alison Fiore of Tiverton drop their two young children off for the first day of school next week, they won't be headed to any of the town's three elementary schools. Instead, they'll …

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Little Compton's tuition program unique in the state

Out of town parents can send children to Pre K through eighth grade program for $6,000 per year

Posted

When Mark and Alison Fiore of Tiverton drop their two young children off for the first day of school next week, they won't be headed to any of the town's three elementary schools. Instead, they'll take the same trip they've made for the past four years, to the Wilbur & McMahon School in Little Compton.

"They've been doing great," said Mr. Fiore of his daughter Isabella, 9, and Nathan, who turned seven last week and is heading into the first grade this year.

"They get the attention they need, the class sizes are small, and quite frankly, Wilbur's got the feel of a private school. We're very happy with it."

The Fiores are among a small number of parents from the Sakonnet area, Fall River and Westport who pay Little Compton $6,000 per year, per student, to send their children to the small Pre K-8 school. Little Compton's out of town tuition program is the only one like it in the state and since it was started about six years ago, has seen dozens of seats filled that otherwise would have sat empty.

"It's really a win-win," said Little Compton Schools Superintendent Dr. Laurie Dias-Mitchell. "It's good for Little Compton and the parents really like the small class sizes, the programs we offer and the special attention their children receive here."

Changing Little Compton

The program was born in 2014 when former Little Compton School Committee member Patrick McHugh, now on the town council, looked around at his home town's changing demographics and realized something needed to be done.

"We had declining enrollment, a lot of empty seats, and a drumbeat from people in town that we should consider selling the school, sending our kids out and closing," he said.

"The school is so important to the community and I didn't want Little Compton to turn into another tourist town like Nantucket, where families were rooted out because they couldn't afford it."

After starting on the committee, he broached discussion on how the town could market its school to parents in nearby towns. With no state prohibitions denying districts the right to seek private tuition and accept Pre-K through eighth grade students from the outside, he researched the cost of tuition at the region's private schools, and specifically looked at the St. Philomena School in Portsmouth as a comparable.

At the time, that school was charging $7,000 per student per year, though by now it has risen to $9,625. St. Phil's had similar class sizes, and Mr. McHugh said he and others realized that if the district could offer a similar tuition structure and not expend any extra funds to accommodate the new students, it would be a net gain. Little Compton settled on $6,000 per pupil, where it remains.

"There's no cost to the district which is the big thing," he said. "We have the empty seats. We're already paying for the lights, the custodians and the teachers. They can come right in."

Smaller class sizes and finances

Class sizes at Wilbur & McMahon are indeed smaller than most other districts. While many hover around 18 or more students per class, Ms. Dias-Mitchell said Little Compton's class sizes range anywhere from eight to 17 students.

The program is "about filling seats, but it's also about enriching the community," she said, adding that the financial bottom line is hardly the main point of it all. Little Compton will make about $54,000 in tuition this coming year, does not receive any additional state aid for its additional students, and does not receive any money from the district tuitioned students leave.

Instead, the enrichment is cultural and works both ways, she said.

"Little Compton is so small. It's very isolated; there is literally no through traffic. You can become very insular as a community that way. But all the students who've come here have brought in fresh perspectives, and that's good for them and good for us."

Though all students are considered, the district reserves the right to turn away students whose education will cost more money than it takes in in tuition, resulting in a net loss for Little Compton.

"If it costs the district money, we can't take them," Mr. McHugh added. "It doesn't make any sense."

According to the policy, "requests to attend the Wilbur and McMahon School on a tuition basis will only be granted when space is available, the attendance of another student will not compromise the educational program, the student’s attendance will not result in a marginal cost to the Little Compton School Department, and the educational needs of the child in question can be met."

Looking ahead

Though it's not everything, the out-of-town tuition program is having a small impact on Wilbur & McMahon enrollment, which this year is projected to be about 230 students — down from about 275 a decade ago.

Over the first two years, the program brought in three or four new students, seven in the third and jumped to 12 in its fourth year. When the pandemic hit, the number dropped to seven students, and she projects there will be about nine this year.

But as Little Compton continues what Ms. Dias-Mitchell calls its trend of "rural gentrification," continual improvement of programs, keeping class sizes low, innovation and actively marketing the district to parents from other towns will remain crucial, she said.

"Our millennials, Generation Z'ers, the alphas ... for them (the town) is out of reach," she said. "You can't even get an entry level home for under $500,000. So how do we respond to that as a town and as a district? What can we do to enrich our town? To offer kids in surrounding communities something that is comparable in cost to a parochial school, but with the public school mission and visioning, and assessment structure. We have so much to offer."

Mr. McHugh agrees, and said the program is doing what he hoped it would when he first started talking about it seven years ago. Moving forward, he hopes to continue to improve the school district and its offerings, which he believes are already top notch. If that happens, perhaps the long trend of declining enrollment can be lessened, he said.

"I grew up here. I'm lucky to live in the house I grew up in and I raised two boys here. I hated to see Little Compton being trampled. Our school needs to be kept and it needs to be vibrant."

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