Class size a hot topic at Board of Ed meeting

The issue of class size dominated the Board of Education’s first meeting of the school year last week, when enrollment data was discussed on several occasions.

As the new school year began last week, parents have expressed concerns about overcrowding in classes, saying with too many children in a class it makes it harder for teachers to focus on individuals, and as a result students suffer in their learning. Parents have long urged the board to create class size restrictions that would alleviate this problem, which would create more classes, but due to the cost no action has been taken.

Throughout the metting, several speakers touched on the issue, including PTA Council (PTAC) President Lisa Beth Savitz.

Ms. Savitz referenced the district’s Enrollment Report, pointing out multiple cases in which elementary school classes had reached the highest point of their student caps. Families, PTA members and administrators have recognized that “optimal learning cannot occur at the current student/teacher ratio,” she said.

On behalf of PTAC, Ms. Savitz requested that the board revisit the policy that determines class size, asking them to “please give every consideration to the families and PTAs you have heard from and will hear from. They do understand the constraints of the budget yet they have every reason to believe that the children’s educational outcomes will improve with additional sections … The level of frustration is significant.”

Cathy Delehanty, president of the Greenwich Education Association (GEA), had similar sentiments, pointing out that the GEA has always advocated for smaller class sizes.

Due to high expectations for differentiation and raising achievement levels, teachers are responsible for understanding each student’s specific needs, and must also make time for communication with parents to their level of satisfaction, which is no easy task, Ms. Delahanty said. And, although the district’s central office has attempted to form committees in order to receive more teacher input, “expectations for teachers continue to increase at alarming rates,” she said.

Greenwich has the resources to be the best school district in the state, she added, but it all boils down to what the district is willing to do to make that happen.

Susie Ponce, mother of second grader Angelina and third grader David, both students at Hamilton Avenue School, spoke passionately about overenrollment in the school’s third grade classes. She insisted children are being “squeezed” into classrooms that were recently renovated to suit smaller class sizes.

Furthermore, she said, “No matter how good a teacher is, if they are not provided with the right tools and environment they will not perform at the same level.” This is especially alarming at the third grade level, she explained, because it is the first year that students are introduced to the Connecticut Mastery Test.

“I thank you in advance, board and administration, for standing by our children, making the correct decision and respecting our children by not allowing the budget to be the only factor in making a decision on their education and their future,” Ms. Ponce said, urging the board to take action.

Theresa Plavoukos, mother of a fourth grade student at Old Greenwich Elementary School, pointed to the high percentage of special needs students in the school’s fourth grade classes, which increases the number of bodies in each classroom due to the need for extra teacher’s aides.

Ms. Plavoukos said she and other parents wanted the addition of a fourth grade section at Old Greenwich Elementary. But, if another section cannot be added, she asked the board “What kind of support can you provide the classrooms with these very special needs?”

In response, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said he had spoken with many parents on the issue, assuring them that “we don’t stop and only look at the budget issues” when it comes to determining class sizes.

He reminded attendees that the maximum number of students allowed in one class at the early elementary level is 21, while the middle elementary level is capped at 24 and the upper elementary level is capped at 26.

“It’s a tough pill … but those are very good numbers in the public sector,” Dr. McKersie explained.

“We monitor this issue very, very carefully,” he said, adding that the board hopes to drive class numbers down in the future.

Board member Peter Sherr took a different tone on the topic, saying that the issue is brought up by parents at board meetings at the beginning of each school year but quickly falls off the radar by late fall. If the public wants to lower class sizes, they need to do so by bringing it to attention during the budget cycle, he said.

Accordingly, Mr. Sherr said he wanted to hear from parents “loudly” in October and November when the board is setting the following year’s budget.

“This is a topic that has tremendous amounts of tension around it,” said board Chairman Leslie Moriarty.

Assuring the public that she was not advocating on either side of the issue, Ms. Moriarty said that changing class size was possible, but might shift the model of education currently being used. While a number of staff members assist teachers in the classroom, smaller class sizes would likely cause the removal of some specialists in order to have enough regular teachers for the increased number of class sections.

The last time the policy regarding determination of class size was reviewed was four years ago, Ms. Moriarty said.

Accordingly, the board could revisit the process via policy governance if it chose to do so at an upcoming meeting, she explained. In a vote to further discuss modifying class size and related policies, the board was split evenly at four in favor and four against, meaning the motion did not pass and the topic will not be addressed at a forthcoming board meeting.

This frustrated parents in the audience, who asked to be able to speak again after the vote, but they were denied since it is not meeting protocol to open up for public comments after the set time for public hearing is over.

 

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