The discussion currently under way about the pupil-teacher ratio, or PTR, within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is turning the community's attention to key questions: What does a quality education mean? How do you provide it? What matters most for students?
And, of course, there's the bottom-line question: What can the community afford?
If nothing else, the discussion will provide a reality check about the connection between resources and how far those limited dollars can stretch. As much as the community may want to provide it all to their students small class sizes, unlimited programs and opportunities in every school, a whole range of extracurricular activities unless there's a huge windfall very soon, that's just not going to happen.
In fact, the school district is looking at another $5 million budget shortfall for the next budget year. As it stands today, even if the district cut all of the central office, that would yield only about $1.5 million. Cutting half of the in-school administrators would mean only $2 million. Cutting the district's contribution to extracurricular activities would produce only about $1 million. All those cuts still would not balance the budget.
Clearly, some tough choices are going to have to be made. The challenge for the entire community, not just the school district, is making those difficult decisions and still providing Kenai Peninsula students with the best education possible.
While reducing class sizes and PTR have wide appeal, it's not a panacea for what many perceive as the ills of the school system. Although research clearly indicates class size makes a difference in student achievement from kindergarten through third grade, the same doesn't hold true for older students.
As a study from the University of Rochester reported: "There appears to be little systematic gain from general reductions in class size. This story comes through at the aggregate level, where pupil-teacher ratios have fallen dramatically over the past three decades and where student performance has remained virtually unchanged. It also comes through from international data, where extraordinarily large differences in class sizes are found without commensurate differences in student performance."
That study and others like it should raise questions about the wisdom of putting money into practices that, by and large, have not produced the desired result higher student performance.
Interwoven with the discussion about class sizes is the one on school programs and why all programs aren't available at all schools. Just as small class sizes have wide appeal, so do small schools. Those small schools are the heart of communities throughout the peninsula; yet the research shows that in order for schools to offer the comprehensive programs that people want they must be a certain size. For example, for a comprehensive elementary school program one that includes program specialists for the library, physical education, art and music there should be at least 350 students and no more than 500 students. For comprehensive middle school and high school programs ones that offer a full range of core academic, vocational, fine arts and physical education courses, as well as extra curricular activities, a media-library specialist, a technology specialist and a counselor at least 700 students and no more than 900 students are necessary.
Only six of the district's elementary schools come close to those numbers; of the middle schools and high schools, only three. It seems obvious consolidating schools must be part of the discussion if people are serious about offering comprehensive programs to students.
There just isn't the money to offer it all. Fortunately, there are things community members can do, including:
1. Lobby legislators to increase funding for schools. If small class sizes and comprehensive programs are important to the community, there needs to be more money to pay for them. In January, the school district will offer a workshop on effective legislative involvement. This is an opportunity not just for parents, but for business and community leaders to show their support for education. Without a quality education system, there is no way the community will be able to attract lasting economic development.
2. Volunteer in the classroom. Not only will it help students, but it also will offer a lesson in what teachers have to deal with today. It's possible larger classes would not be the problem they are if all teachers had to do was teach. Unfortunately, a mound of bureaucratic paperwork now accompanies their jobs, not to mention issues that were unimaginable a generation ago. Teachers should not have to spend their time as disciplinarians, and a few problem students should not be allowed to disrupt a whole classroom's education.
3. Be an involved parent. Show you value education. Become a partner with your children's teachers. Make sure your children are held accountable for their behavior at home and school. Set the example by showing your children what personal responsibility is.
4. Be realistic about the school district's money situation. It's not so different from any family's budget; there are few people who can afford to do it all. The district certainly can't.
Which is why the current discussion is so important. If the district can't do it all, where does the community want limited dollars channeled so they can produce the maximum results?
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