More students means shuffling class sizes, teachers, to some displeasure

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

A group of Sears Elementary School families learned last week that even good news can have consequences.

Enrollment in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is about 250 students over the projections for this school year. For a district that's been losing students -- and the associated state funding -- at a rate of about 2 percent a year for nearly a decade, that's encouraging.

However, the excess students have meant some staff shifting in the district -- a fact not pleasing families at Sears Elementary School, where one teacher was transferred last week to Redoubt Elementary School.

Sears kindergarten teacher Audra McCubbins was sent to Redoubt on Monday, about two weeks after classes had started. Sears first-grade teacher Mary Fischer took over McCubbins' class, and Fischer's 16 first-graders were divided up among existing first-grade classes.

"These kids were comfortable, and they're not now," said Scott Walden, whose grandson was among the first-graders entering new classes this week. "They will be later, but in the meantime, they'll stagnate."

Walden said the transfer should have been made before classes started -- or a new teacher should have been hired for the Redoubt position.

But Superintendent Donna Peterson, sitting down with parents Tuesday afternoon, said the situation isn't that simple.

The district uses formulas to determine the number of teachers at each school site. At the elementary school level, that means an average of one teacher for every 24 kindergarten through second-graders and one for every 29 third- through sixth-graders. Last spring, the school board also appropriated money to help address situations where the average-based formulas led to "bubbles" of large classes.

District administrators used historical data and student registrations to figure out which schools needed help and hired an additional 12 teachers, giving several schools staff over-and-above their allotted numbers.

Among those getting extra teachers was Sears Elementary School, which received 1.5 positions, Peterson said.

But after a couple weeks of school, the expected number of students hadn't shown up at Sears -- though several extra students appeared in classrooms in other parts of the district.

"We didn't know what the impact of Kaleidoscope (a charter school started in the Sears building) would be, and we didn't accurately predict what would happen with Nikiski North Star (the consolidated Nikiski-area elementary school)," Peterson told Sears parents. "We missed with Sears."

Meanwhile, Connections, the district's home-school program, has a total enrollment of 673, as compared to the 500 students expected, said Human Res-ources Director Tim Peterson. Likewise, another 77 unexpected children filed into traditional school buildings around the peninsula.

Among the greatest increases are 41 students more than projected at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School; 33 students at Redoubt Elementary; 30 at Ninilchik, and 23 more than expected each at Homer High and Sterling Elementary.

Some of those increases have been addressed with additional money from the district's unallocated fund, which is designed for these kinds of situations. Since the start of the school year, additional teachers were added at Homer High, McNeil Canyon Elementary and Ninilchik schools.

To fix Redoubt's problem, though, the district relied on a transfer. Numerically, it was simple: Redoubt was short a teacher, and Sears had 1.5 positions above its allotment.

In human terms, it's a little more difficult. The transfer process is regulated by employee contracts. Lacking volunteers to change schools, the least senior member of the staff was transferred to Redoubt. In the meantime, both schools worked to institute transition plans.

At Sears, the parents of all affected students were called by their student's original teacher and received follow-up calls from Principal Mick Wykis. Parents were encouraged to report any problems their children were having with the transition, and new teachers are working on team-building and integration activities in the classroom.

While some parents remain unhappy about the changes, Donna Peterson said transfers in the first weeks of school aren't uncommon. For example, she said, if the district hadn't used money to hire additional teachers during the summer -- a practice usually done when problems occur in the first weeks of school -- even more changes would have had to have been made districtwide.

Likewise, added Wykis, last year Sears was on the other side of a similar situation: A kindergarten class had 33 students and had to be split in half a few weeks into the school year.

"Both are difficult situations," he said. And, he added, the school still is well within the guidelines for class size.

There may be a couple classes with more than 24 students, he said, but none have more than 25.

"If we were going from 29 to 25, we'd be going, 'Hallelujah!'" he said. "This isn't the situation we want, but we have a plan in place."

In the meantime, the district is working to sort out the handful of staffing issues while breathing a sigh of relief that more students haven't left the district.

The 270 students beyond the district's projection mean only 30 students have disappeared from last year, leaving the total enrollment at 9,480 students, down from 9,510 last year.

"I think it's wonderful," Tim Peterson said.



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