Class size spike in three schools angers parents

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Education > Debate forces trustees to look at status of out-of-district students

First in a series.


A number of parents, alarmed at the sharp rise in second grade class sizes in three elementary schools, turned out for Tuesday’s Los Alamos Board of Education meeting to voice their concerns.

“These class sizes are too large and unacceptable to me and many other parents,” resident Susan O’Leary told the board.

O’Leary, who has two children enrolled at Mountain Elementary, continued to get her point across.

“The most important variable I hear about elementary education is class size,” O’Leary said. “If we pay attention to class size knowing that reasonable classes mean that our children will get a reasonable amount of attention from the teacher at a time when many children are learning how to behave in a classroom. The National Education Association recommends class sizes of 15 for grades K through 3. I’d settle for a class size of 20.”

According to documents obtained from the Los Alamos Public Schools, the average number of students in second grade classes in each of the elementary schools is 25 as of Aug. 14. Upon obtaining the figures, school officials reminded the Los Alamos Monitor that the numbers are fluid, and they won’t know for about two weeks whether the numbers are accurate or not.

Here are the numbers, according to a district document called “Projected enrollment at the Start of School 2013-14:
• 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.

According to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt, the high numbers in some of the classes can be traced back to when the district and the board decided, in an effort to get the school budget balanced and under control, to not replace seven retiring teachers. They decided this in favor of reaching the long term goal of balancing the budget as well as avoiding future, more drastic measures to save money, such as cutting programs.

Mountain Elementary School teacher Ellen Mills questioned the board’s strategy at the meeting as well.

“Many of these children will feed into the middle school and be our high school students as well,” she said to the board. “...The second graders are young children. They are having their early experiences in the educational system. Is this indeed the experience we want them to have, at this young age and potentially throughout their public school experience? I echo many of the comments of the parents.

“We need to look at the long range plan that’s associated with the impact as well as with this one age level. From the teacher perspective we now have several teachers at these three different sites that will be carrying a significantly larger load. Please consider these long range impacts it will have on our district as we are scrutinized more and more with test results and performance grades.”

After the public got its chance to speak, the board was given the floor, at which time board member Dr. Kevin Honnell then proceeded to give his perspective on the underlying reasons of how this happened, and what they could do about it in the future.

“First of all, in my profession, you usually start off a talk by giving an acknowledgement or credit to the people that got you in this predicament. ...So I’d like to begin by acknowledging the governor(s) of New Mexico and the legislature of New Mexico for consistently undervaluing education, year after year, generation after generation,” he said.

He then went on to give some specifics.

“In New Mexico, all the operations for state funds are controlled at the state level. We can’t go out and have bake sales or sell land in order to raise money for band or hire teachers. It’s against the law in New Mexico. The money goes to Santa Fe, they use a formula, and then that money comes back to us. ...We’re in this predicament because we don’t get enough money,” Honnell said.

“...They count up the number of students you have, and they give you that much money. The fact that we’re able to maintain a student-teacher ratio 25 percent below the state average is due in part to the DOE funds (The Department of Energy gives $8 million a year to the school system) and our lease funds (LAPS makes about $3 million a year in leasing its properties to businesses, the biggest client being the Los Alamos National Laboratory).

These are very unique situations, but also the administration tries to stretch those dollars as far as they can go.”
Board member Judy Bjarke McKenzie a former teacher gave a personal perspective on the large class size issue.

“One year I had a class size of 29 and a I felt like a complete failure, because I couldn’t get to teach all of them as much as I wanted to,” she said. “Whoever said ‘if we start off with two classes this year, we will have two classes next year,’ they were correct. It goes through the district, and you can definitely tell who came from those huge numbers.

“It really does affect how much a teacher can give to kids in terms of a quality education; and I’m not just talking about test scores, kids are not little testers, you have to look at the whole child, you have to see how this impacts the whole child. They can very well slip through the cracks in these large classes, and they feel like they have no value because you don’t get the time to make them feel valued. We really do need to get creative and find some more ways to get more money to keep our class sizes low.”

In Friday’s Los Alamos Monitor, read more about the class size issue.