Packed classes raise concern

Posted: Friday, October 24, 2003

Attendance in Dave Carey's classrooms has been good the past several weeks.

While that's usually a blessing for a high school teacher, this year, it also is a bit of a curse.

"It's a good news, bad news thing," the Skyview High School social studies teacher said Thursday, looking around his 11th-grade U.S. history class.

Only one student was absent from the class Thursday, leaving all 28 desks in the small room full and four students sitting in folding chairs along the wall.

Classrooms at Skyview are built to hold about 15 students, Carey told the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education on Monday night. Three of his six classes have more than 30 students. The others have about 26.

"I cannot place desks for every student and have a safe exit," Carey told the board.

As it is, the 28 desks in the class arranged in tight rows leave little room for movement.

"Please be careful leaving the room," Carey told students Thursday. "Don't run into stuff."

There also isn't a desk for every student.

"I apologize on a daily basis to the students who have to sit in folding chairs," Carey told the board Monday.

The students themselves have adapted to the situation.

Junior Richard Derkevorkian brought a folding camp chair from home specifically for the class.

His classmate Justin Dahlen joked that he sometimes "rents" the chair for a period.

"He bought that chair specifically for the purpose of being able to sit down in class," Dahlen said.

Though the students said the crowded room isn't a huge challenge educationally "Mr. Carey is pretty good at controlling us," Dahlen said it does present a few problems.

For one thing, it's not easy to take notes without a desk to write on.

"It gets really hot with all these people," said junior Laura Smith.

"It's hard to walk around," added Candice West, also a junior.

Carey's classes aren't the only ones that are crowded.

Dahlen said the average size of his classes is about 30. Derkevorkian said he has one math class with about 25 students.

According to a class size report presented at the school board meeting Monday night, Skyview has 24 classes with 30 or more students and 51 classes with 25 to 29 students. By comparison, the smallest class is a math course with only 12 students, but only 17 classes at the school have less than 15 students.

And Skyview isn't the only school experiencing such crowds.

Throughout the district, 194 classes have 30 or more students, and 420 have 25 to 29 students. Only 198 have less than 15 kids.

The class sizes are the result of a change to pupil-teacher ratios districtwide, which was approved by the school board last year. The decision, made amid much board discussion, was a cost-saving measure for the cash-strapped district.

Pupil-teacher ratios determine the number of teachers in each school based on student enrollment. Ratios are set for each "category" of school. Specifically, large high schools such as Skyview, Soldotna and Kenai Central, have a staffing formula of 1:24.5. In larger elementary schools, kindergarten through third-grade classes are staffed at a rate of 1:24.5; grades four through six are staffed at 1:29; and grades seven and eight are staffed at 1:24.5. In small schools with less than 100 students Razdolna, Nanwalek and the like the ratio is 1:19. And in small K-12 schools with more than 100 students Nikolaevsk, Ninilchik and Voznesenka the ratio is 1:21.

But though the ratios relate to class size, they don't mandate it. For example, Skyview has about 531 students with 26.65 general education teaching positions, including part-time teachers. That makes for a pupil-teacher ratio of 19.9 students per teacher, which actually is below the district's set ratio for schools of its size. Still, as evidenced by the class size report and Carey's classroom that doesn't mean there are only 20 students in each class. Rather, there's an average class size of 22.6 students per class, with real class sizes ranging from 12 to 41 students.

The district and school board are aware of the class size issue. Superintendent Donna Peterson said Monday that some schools such as Moose Pass, which has a PTR of 11:1 are technically "overstaffed." But board members, who have been receiving numerous calls from concerned parents, are more worried about the large class sizes.

Some board members have been outspokenly worried about the effect of the increase in PTR since they made the decision last year.

Margaret Gilman, for example, lobbied hard against the increase in PTR.

"This, for me, is where I draw a line in the sand and I can't cross it. It's deplorable," Gilman said last November. "My child will be in fifth grade next year. If I walk my child down to the classroom on the first day and there are 32 other kids, even though I'm on the school board, I'll turn around and walk back out."

Only recently, however, as large class sizes became a reality, have board members started to hear from parents and students about the issue.

Board members said Monday night that they appreciated feedback from community members regarding PTR.

"My wish is that as we enter these decisions about PTR, we can take our concerns out to the community, to the public, so we can make it better," board member Sammy Crawford said Monday, adding that public outcry is going to be necessary to get the Legislature's attention.

After all, the PTR increases and subsequent large class sizes were a financial decision.

According to Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer, the district cut 55.5 teaching positions effective this fall. Of those, 13.5 positions disappeared due to declining enrollment. The other 42 position cuts were a direct effect of the increase to PTR. But while administrators and board members say they agonize over cutting teachers, the overall decrease in teaching positions saved the district some $3.3 million, Douglas said Thursday.

The coming year is unlikely to be different.

The school board will begin discussing staffing formulas in the coming month's meetings while once again facing budgetary challenges. Most administrators and board members loathe the idea of once again increasing PTR, but say creative ideas will be necessary to avoid further teacher cuts.

Carey said he understands the difficult decisions before the board.

"I thank you for serving in this difficult task," Carey told board members Monday night. "But I hope you will consider square footage of classrooms when you make further decisions about PTR. Keep in mind that some schools are not built the same."

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