Educators aim to cut class size | AspenTimes.com
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Educators aim to cut class size

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Swelling class sizes have forced the Aspen School District to make some unique adjustments for the new school year – and will likely lead to more drastic measures in the near future.

The district’s growing enrollment dominated the agenda Thursday during a special meeting of the Aspen School Board. The meeting was called earlier this week after members and administrators expressed interest in forming concrete policies on class sizes.

Aspen Elementary School Principal Robin Whitacre told the board that she recently met with teachers to discuss the sudden spike in enrollment. The school’s fourth-grade class is especially popular, Whitacre said, with an average of 21 students per classroom.

Whitacre admitted that by Aspen standards, 21 students per class is unusually high. However, many of the elementary school teachers have worked in other districts where larger classes, in the range of 25 to 30 students, are the norm.

“I think they’ve experienced life in other lands, and they realize it’s a treat” to have just 21 students per class, Whitacre said.

However, the school wouldn’t be adverse to class-size caps. “[The teachers] did say they would be concerned if the numbers went up to 23 per class,” Whitacre said.

Assistant Superintendent Joanne Ihrig supported Whitacre, noting that recent research indicates larger classes are acceptable for older grades.

“For one thing, you don’t have as much individual-type work,” such as remedial reading, Ihrig said. “You don’t have the intensity of instruction as lower grades.”

But Aspen Elementary does have a problem with its growing first-grade class, administrators agreed. Nearly 120 students have enrolled in first grade, and limited facilities will force the school to crowd classrooms this year.

Whitacre noted that the school’s first-grade core is equipped with two conjoined classrooms, which teachers normally divide to create two separate classrooms of 20 children. If administrators added five or six students to each class with a third full-time teacher to deal with the extra workload, the facilities crunch could be solved – for this school year, anyway.

Whitacre said she has already talked to three teachers – Lynn Eastley, Sarah Peshek and Jamie Mahaffey – about the possibility. Each seemed excited about the team-teaching theory.

“I think that team of three would be dynamic,” Whitacre said.

It would likely cost $50,000 to hire another full-time teacher to take over Mahaffey’s former classroom. However, Ihrig said the increased enrollment – 12 additional students recently enrolled at Aspen Elementary – would bring in more support from the state which would make up for the cost of a new teacher.

This option will create an average of 17.5 students in the remaining first-grade classes, Whitacre said. Though the principal said she considered “uninviting” 20 out-of-district students in an effort to decrease class size, that would leave “a whole class of kids” for downvalley districts to absorb just two weeks before a new school year.

Board member Fred Peirce, the father of an incoming first-grade student, initially voiced opposition to Whitacre’s plan.

“The mental picture of 50 first-graders in an open classroom gives me the heebie-jeebies,” Peirce said.

Whitacre noted that class-within-a-class activities such as computer lab and art class would often split the children up. Rarely, if ever, would the room contain 50 unruly 7-year-olds.

The conjoined classroom is a temporary solution, Whitacre added. The principal said she would look for ways to shrink the class in preparation for fall 2004.

Thursday’s discussions led board members and administrators to set tentative size caps for many of the district’s grade levels – preparation, they said, for policies they hope to set in the next few months. The group decided to limit enrollment in kindergarten through third-grade classes to 17 students; fourth- and fifth-grade classes to 21 students; and sixth-grade classes to 24 students.

Size caps will greatly affect the school district’s budget, board member Jon Seigle observed. If lower grades are indeed limited to 17 students per class, the district will likely lose thousands of dollars in revenue from the state.

Seigle asked administrators to review the district’s budget before forming any concrete policies on class sizes.

Seigle also noted that enforcing these new class sizes would force those 20 first-grade students from out-of-district families to leave Aspen schools next fall. Board members suggested that these families be forewarned of this possibility.

“Every one of those parents should understand that some of them will not be here next year,” Peirce said.

The board wrapped up Thursday’s discussions with plans to form a committee, likely a division of the District Accountability Committee, to join in the district’s examination of class sizes.


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