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  Comments (2) Total Sunday Apr. 20, 2014
 
Overcrowding Has Kalispell Schools Scrambling
Schools to add more aides, increase librarians’ hours
Kindergarten teacher Pat Brandeberry, left, hands out Zoo-phonics flash cards for her students to color at Edgerton Elementary School in Kalispell. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
Faced with overcrowded elementary classrooms across Kalispell, school district board members voted to increase work hours available for aides and librarians in a desperate attempt to make up for an unexpected boom in students, particularly kindergartners.

After an impassioned discussion that included teachers and parents speaking up in the crowded conference room at Glacier High School on Sept. 13, the elementary school board voted 4-2 to increase full-time-equivalency hours for three aides and to return librarians to full-time status with an added duty of providing instructional support to teachers.

There are currently 366 kindergartners — 25 more than this time last year — spread across 15 classes at five elementary schools in Kalispell. That equals roughly 24 students per classroom. In first grade, there are 333 students — 24 more than in 2010 — in 15 classrooms. In second grade, there are 313 students — 16 more than 2010 — in 14 rooms.

“Obviously that has an impact on instruction,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Darlene Schottle said of the high number of students per classroom. State accreditation standards say class sizes should be limited to 20.

Along with the unexpected increase in students, the city’s elementary schools are physically out of space, Schottle said. Even if funds become available to add additional teachers, none of the current elementary school buildings have room. And since the boom in enrollments is currently at the lower grade levels, the issue will start climbing from there.

“As we talked about it at the board meeting, are we going to sustain this growth or do you really want to go out and add on the extra rooms or build a new facility when it seems to be unpredictable about what it might look like five years from now,” Schottle said in a later interview. “It’s a challenge how to deal with this in a safe manner.”

At the School District 5 board of trustees meeting, Assistant Superintendant Dan Zorn outlined four options, albeit short-term ones, that were brainstormed in reaction to the overcrowding.

The elementary board reached a majority vote in favor of adding aides and increasing librarians’ hours, a motion that was a combination of two options. The vote came after a lengthy discussion in which the board ruled out a fourth option calling for reducing kindergarten school weeks from five days to four.

Although reducing the school week by one day would be the most cost-effective option for the district, some board members expressed concern that the burden of cost would fall too heavily on families that would need daycare as a replacement.

“We have to be careful because I got a feeling that we would probably alienate more people than we would bring in by going to option four,” board member Frank Miller said.

Another elementary school board member, chairman Brad Eldredge, countered that schools have responsibilities that precede out-of-school supervision.

“I really think it’s not our mission to be daycare,” he said. “I think parents are responsible to take care of their kids. They would find a way to make this work.”

Eldredge and fellow board member Eve Dixon both voted against the motion to increase aide and librarian hours. The motion will require hiring new staff, which will take place in the coming weeks, Zorn said.

Librarians at the five schools who have been working in a limited role since last school year will now return to full-time status, although their job description will change.

“It’s bringing them back to full-time but not to a full-time librarian,” Zorn said.

Both the increased aide availability and full-time librarians will help support teachers but will not solve the accreditation issue.

Kristi Sanders, a kindergarten teacher at Peterson Elementary School, said she hopes the solutions being discussed are not simply short-term band-aids.

Fellow Peterson kindergarten teacher Lindsey Bushnell, who is also a parent of a kindergartner, said the class sizes are stretching teachers thin.

“One person cannot meet the needs (of the current classroom sizes),” she said, adding that the issue is about more than just education, but a safety concern as well.

Elementary school board member John Michael Myers said building a new school is at least worth discussing.

“We really need to look seriously at building a new elementary school in the district,” he said. “The issue is I don’t want us to five years from now have our backs against the wall in more desperate circumstances.”

Later in the meeting, Dixon said Myers’ fears are already being realized.

“I think our backs are already against the wall trying to make this decision,” Dixon said. “I’m not sold on any of (the options).”

To which Schottle replied, “I don’t think any of us are sold on any of (the options). This is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. What we’re trying to do is work with staff and provide them with some level of support.”
 
On 09-19-11, JohnGalt commented....
Good comments hotfishmt.  This may very well be a temporary problem.  I know that a lot of the increase is due to a drop in people sending their kids to private schools.  I assume the number of home schooled kids is also down as more parents are going to work…
 
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