By Justin Franz, 3-02-12
||Caption: Kindergarten teacher Pat Brandeberry, left, talks her students through Zoo-phonics flash cards at Edgerton Elementary School in Kalispell. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
More students are roaming the halls of Kalispell's five public elementary schools and, according to school officials, that means more problems. In response, School District 5 has been hosting public meetings to discuss solutions.
Options to address overcrowded classrooms include everything from beginning half-day kindergarten classes to building a new elementary school. Both short- and long-term options were presented to the public during a meeting this week at Hedges Elementary and Superintendent Darlene Schottle said the school board will vote this month on how to move forward.
Some immediate solutions include adding three classrooms to the old Laser School site; returning to half-day kindergarten or giving parents and students a half-day option; reconfiguring the school week for kindergarteners; or hiring more staff.
Schottle said the kindergarten classes are some of the fastest growing in the district, which is problematic because, according to state regulations, those classes should have the lowest student-to-teacher ratio. Instead of the required 20 to 1 ratio, Schottle said most kindergarten classes in the district have an average ratio of 25 to 1.
“We noticed an increase in students over the last three years, but this year had a huge impact,” she said. “Having more students means less one-on-one time or group work the teacher can do.”
While first through eighth grades have grown at an annual rate of about 2 percent over the last decade, the kindergarten classes have grown by 4 percent, according to data supplied by the school district. In 2012, there were 359 students enrolled in kindergarten classes in Kalispell's public schools. If the growth rate continues, there will be more than 550 kindergarteners in 2022.
“It's a pretty steep increase over time and if you look at that (data) you can see why we're busting at the seams now,” Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn said during last week's meeting.
Zorn gave a short presentation to parents about some of the district’s options. The most “controversial” of them is mandating half-day kindergarten, which would result in a loss of about $400,000 in state funds.
“That $400,000 figure makes me nervous,” he said. “We've tightened our belts pretty hard in the last few years and finding more cuts makes me nervous.”
Parents were more concerned about how a half-day would affect their children's education. While some supported the idea of shorter school days, others said a full day was critical to their children developing social skills. Almost everyone agreed that something must be done.
“I think it's a big concern, not just for the elementary school, but I think it's a problem that's going to continue as the valley grows,” said Stephanie Mason, who has children in the fourth and fifth grades and is a para-educator in the district. She and others appeared to support constructing a new elementary school in the next few years.
According to Zorn and Schottle, the earliest a new elementary school could be opened would be in 2015 and the community would have to vote on a bond to approve it. Such a project would cost more than $10 million, a price tag that doesn't include costs for staffing and supplies. Schottle said the school board would begin discussing its long-term plans later this year after it decides what to do in the short-term.
Another forum is scheduled for Monday, March 5, at 5 p.m. at Edgerton Elementary.
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