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Second grade class sizes raise concerns

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Education > Trustees grapple to find solutions

By Tris DeRoma

Second of a two-part series

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Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting focused on parents’ concerns about second grade class size at a number of local elementary schools.

Here are the numbers:
• Aspen Elementary, second grade, two classes, 26 +25 for a total of 51 second grade students.
• Barranca Elementary, second grade, two classes, 26 + 25 for a total of 51 second grade students.
• Chamisa Elementary, second grade, two classes, 17 +18 for a total of 35 students
• Mountain Elementary, second grade, two classes, 26 + 26 for a total of 50 students
• At Piñon Elementary, it was the fourth grade that stood out, with two classes of 25 students each for a total of 50.

The board spent a considerable amount of time trying to come up with solutions.

Board member Kevin Honnell acknowledged that the second grade is a critical grade for school children, where they learn to master reading and get the fundamentals of arithmetic, he also urged the audience to look at the realities the board is up against.

“This district, financially, is headed toward an iceberg like the Titanic,” he said. “We’re in deficit spending, $2 million a year. That’s going to run out in three years. So, can we find extra money for teachers this year? Sure, we can, and if all we needed was a few hundred thousand dollars to bring on those teachers, I don’t think we’d have much more to discuss. But, there are other financial consequences in the fine print that become large when you look at the checkbook. One is, we don’t hire staff with the intent of inhaling them, then exhaling them a year or two later. They are our neighbors. They are our friends, our residents. So when we invest in a quality faculty member, we like to do it with the idea that ‘if you live up to your promise, we have a place for you on our team for the long haul.

“Beyond that though, is how it affects our multiplier, our “t” and “e” factor, that is, time and experience. Which is a multiplier (the state) uses when they count up the number of students in the district and they’re figuring out how much money we get for the teachers, the operations and the utilities, they multiply it by this “t” and “e” ratio. That hinges significantly on the experience of the teachers. So, if we bring in four, three, two, level one (entry level) teachers, that ratio goes down. Not for just a year, but for decade.”

Honnell then alluded to a debate the school board had in the spring when they were contemplating what they were going to do in the wake of seven retiring teachers.

“If we were to hire two teachers, which was what the debate was about in the spring, not only would we be going deeper into debt paying their salary, but we would be incurring a $300,000 per year reduction in our state funding for the next decade,” he explained to the audience. “So that means you would hire two now but lay off six later. If we continue on this path unabated, the second grade class, if they continue onto middle school or high school, they will not have fine arts; they will not have orchestra, band, ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) we won’t have Hill Talkers (debating team) and we will be maxed out in all of our classes. We are in a deficit situation because the State of New Mexico does not give its citizens enough money for a quality education.”

Honnell then turned to his colleagues and members of the administration and urged them to consider that perhaps it’s time to start making some tough choices when it comes to taking in out-of-district students.

He noted that the agreement out-of-district parent’s sign gives the district permission to move out-of-district students to other schools if the class burden gets too high. He used Chamisa and Mountain as examples.

“Out-of-district students are approximately 20 percent of our student population,” he said. “And the board authorizes that primarily for one reason, the benefit of a public education in Los Alamos.”

Board President Jim Hall agreed on many of the board members’ perspectives, as well as those of the residents who spoke. However, he also said that the strategies the board’s pursuing in adding to their teacher’s professional and educational development counts too and there are many studies he said back up his opinion. He also said professional development for their teachers may be less painful than the alternatives suggested.

“As for moving kids from school to school, often, they have siblings. Are we going to move the whole family? We have to consider those challenges too,” he said. “...There seem to be pretty consistent study results that say effective teachers are probably more important than class size within a range. That’s one of the reasons why the board chose this year to put a lot of resources into the new teacher evaluation system and professional development.”

He also said that indications are Los Alamos’ elementary schools are a lot better off than those in many other districts, adding that in their next strategic planning session this fall they are going to try and address many of the long-term issues.

For short term solutions, Hall recommended hiring teacher’s aides to help out in classes that have larger number of students in them.

Superintendent Gene Schmidt also agreed with the short-term solution of adding more aides to the classrooms.

“First, I think we need to make sure the numbers we’re talking about are real numbers and not numbers on paper,” he said. “I think as we do that, whatever the numbers are, leave them as they are and try and flood the classrooms with additional aides which is the preferred option the board came up with last spring when we dealt with this as a Piñon Elementary School issue.”

He also suggested to the board to seriously consider Honnell’s option as well.

“Who are the students inside the class? Have they come out of district? If so, is it possible to move them to another school to balance enrollment,” he said, adding they might also want to consider the idea of “combination classes” where they put the second and third grades together.

“If we combined classes in a second and third grade kind of solution, where you wouldn’t have to add staff, but you would have enrollment rates of around 23 or 24. ...If the intent is to balance enrollment then that could be done.”

He then said the last solution would be to hire a teacher, but he warned, “that would put them further out of budget compliance as they moved into the future.”

The administration and the board then adjourned the issue, agreeing to see where the numbers ultimately settle. Schmidt said he would also be having conversations with teachers and other members of his staff regarding what they could do about the issue before the next board meeting in September.