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Hood River schools deal with class size concerns

By BOB WOOD

News staff writer

August 26, 2006

Schools in Hood River start classes in just over a week, and some parents — especially those who have children in fifth grade at May Street Elementary — are concerned about the number of students in the classrooms.

Due in large part to the 225-student bilingual charter school starting up on Westside Elementary’s campus this fall, May Street’s total student enrollment has declined. And while this decrease in students is mostly invisible, fifth-graders are seeing some of the repercussions.

At the end of last school year, it was projected there would be 56 fifth-grade students at May Street. This number is just below the benchmark to justify hiring a third fifth-grade teacher, so two classes of 28 students each were slated for the school.

This number concerns some of the parents of these children, who are coming off of a fourth-grade year in which they were split into three different classes. Some concerned parents have even gone so far as to start a petition requesting the hiring of a third teacher.

“Last year there were 18 kids in a class,” said Cindy Tegman, mother of a fifth-grader at May Street and a parent behind the petition. “That was ideal.”

Organizers of the petition say that it is a proactive move. “As parents, we spoke up sooner rather than later,” Tegman said. “We wanted to voice our concerns and let the school district and the principal know that the kids had an awesome year last year.”

The petition states that smaller classes allow teachers to be more active in each child’s learning experience. “If we are to go to 28 plus or minus, we will lose that level of learning that we as parents have come to expect and enjoy. Most of all … so will the kids,” the petition says.

“We have had classes of 28, 29 — even 30 — over the last year at elementary schools,” said Pat Evenson-Brady, superintendent of Hood River County schools. “When big class loads come along, we do something about it. We do address it.”

Evenson-Brady said that a possible solution is to hire additional classroom help, as May Street Principal Susan Henness has already done.

“We have classroom assistants, so it’s not just teachers working in isolation,” Henness said. “We’re definitely a team.”

Tegman, however, is not convinced that this approach will be effective.

“My gut says I don’t know how that would help,” said Tegman. “There’s a certain bond created when a teacher is individually managing the kids.”

“All of our classroom assistants are highly qualified,” said Henness. “I have lots of confidence in them.”

Another concern for parents is that children who are perhaps smarter or better learners may not get their share of attention from the teacher.

“The kids who are advanced will be on their own,” Tegman said, worrying that teachers will need to spend more time with the kids who may not learn as quickly. “It makes me nervous for the kids at the top.”

“Our district has focused on differentiated instruction for the last five years,” said Henness. “They understand that they need to provide different assignments with different criteria for different learners. Our staff is very experienced with this.”

Parental concern aside, the fact remains that the school district’s hiring policy is based on numbers.

“People want us to address this now,” said Evenson-Brady about the hiring of a third teacher. “But if the kids don’t materialize, we’ll just have to lay that teacher off and recombine the classes.”

“We can’t hire someone until we reach a critical point,” said Henness, “and we won’t know until we actually have the students.”

“We take numbers very seriously,” said Mike Oates, chairman of the Hood River County School Board. “We know how important it is, especially at the elementary level.”

The school seeing the biggest spike in enrollment, although mostly unfazed by the increase, is Westside Elementary, which will have well over 100 more students than last year because of the charter school.

Admission to the bilingual school, which is “focused on developing dual-language fluency” according to Westside Principal Dan Patton, is based on a lottery system.

“We have waiting lists for each grade level,” said Patton, who moved from May Street to Westside in July. Patton said that, as school gets closer and students are faced with leaving their home schools, some are giving up their places in the bilingual classrooms.

In order to cope with the increase of students, Westside has installed three modular buildings with classrooms. These buildings will be used for Westside classes, while the charter school will take place inside the existing walls.

“We want to make it as much as possible Westside School,” said Patton, “not ‘us and them.’”

According to Evenson-Brady, the district’s enrollment will peak around the third week of September with about 4,000 students.

“We know parents get anxious about class size,” Evenson-Brady said. “We will analyze that situation when we get there.”

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