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Some classes exceed pupil-to-teacher ratio at Juneau schools

Superintendent calls situation 'unacceptable,' blames budget crunch

Posted: September 1, 2012 - 11:15pm

Juneau School District officials acknowledged this week that they are struggling to meet optimum pupil-to-teacher ratios approved earlier this year at several Juneau schools.

Class sizes at some elementary schools exceed the approved ratios of 22:1 for primary classes — kindergarten through second grade — and 26.5:1 for intermediate classes — third-grade through fifth-grade. In some cases, teachers are managing classes six students above PTR.

“We just completed two years of very significant budget cuts that included reductions at every level of the organization, and as much as we tried to protect the classroom — and proportionately speaking, we did — we still have some enrollment bubbles,” said Glenn Gelbrich, JSD superintendent, before a Board of Education retreat Tuesday.

Gelbrich said as many as six district schools are affected, but the school hardest hit with these “bubbles” appears to be Riverbend Elementary School.

“Riverbend School right now has, for its primary grades, way too many kids,” said Carrie Macaulay, a Riverbend parent concerned about the school’s enrollment issues.

Both kindergarten classes at Riverbend currently have 24 students enrolled, and its first-grade and second-grade classes have a whopping 28 students each. Its blended first- and second-grade class has 25 students.

“At the elementary level … the biggest issue is that at Riverbend, that we have a couple of primary grade classes that are at 28,” Gelbrich said Tuesday. “And we don’t want that — ever. So that’s pretty much a priority for us right now.”

“In our K-2, we have 129 students, and when you take that and divide it by the PTR ratio of 22, it puts us at 5.86 staff currently,” Riverbend Principal Shannon Avenson explained. “So what that means is we have five staff, you know, and typically you round up, and ideally we would have six staff.”

Davin Savikko teaches a class of 24 kindergarteners at Riverbend. He said that when classes are too large, it is the students who are most affected.

“The difficulties are there when you have six extra kids, seven extra kids. It just cuts down, you know, from that attention that they need and deserve, especially with the real young kids,” Savikko said. “It’s their first time in public school, their first experience at school. There’s so much that they need. And when you just cram more and more kids into a classroom, that’s where the difficulties lie. It’s really not fair for the kids.”

Macaulay and several other parents have sent emails to Gelbrich and other JSD staff, as well as to school board members, urging them to hire a new teacher at Riverbend.

“These large class sizes are unacceptable at any elementary school,” Macaulay wrote in one email. “Riverbend has worked so hard to improve, but if teachers aren’t given basic supports like a reasonable class size, how can we expect our students to progress?”

Riverbend, which is a Title I school, eligible for additional funding due to its relatively high number of students from low-income households, has failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards in the past two years.

Macaulay said she is frustrated that in light of its AYP issues, Riverbend remains understaffed for the number of primary students it has.

But Riverbend is not alone. Harborview Elementary School has seven teachers for 170 students in primary classes — less than the 7.73 teachers it would need to meet PTR.

At a school summit Thursday at Thunder Mountain High School, Gelbrich addressed the issue while taking questions from parents on the state of Juneau’s schools.

“There’s some enrollment situations that are unacceptable, and we have no resources to address them until we have an exact, precise count of every kid,” said Gelbrich. “And we’re hoping that that will produce some leeway to fix one or two of those problems. … My confidence level that we can do more than that hovers around zero.”

The JSD is holding off on any potential new hiring until it can assess enrollment after Labor Day, the district officials explained.

“We have to make sure that our numbers are solid, and when we do, then we will resolve the issues that we have,” Gelbrich said Tuesday. “It’s possible that, if our numbers solidify and come in where we need them to come in, then it’s possible we might add a teacher there. It’s also possible we might add some staffing in a place or two beyond that. But none of those are, by any means, a certainty.”

Alluding to the district’s budget woes, Gelbrich remarked, “We can’t write a check that we can’t cash.”

But Macaulay does not seem satisfied by the answer.

“Please explain to me how there can be no money available for another teacher if the budget that was approved back in April included a 22:1 PTR for primary grades?” Macaulay wrote in an email Wednesday to school board member Barbara Thurston. “Riverbend’s primary grades are well above that PTR in all classes, so I don’t understand if the district budgeted for 22:1, how can there not be any funding for another teacher?”

Enrollment issues now are due to underestimates during the staffing period, Thurston wrote back.

“Staffing for each school was made based on the board-approved pupil-teacher ratio and the ‘best guess’ of enrollment that was made shortly before school started,” Thurston wrote. “Several schools, Riverbend in particular, had a final enrollment that was larger than predicted, which resulted in larger class sizes than anyone wants.”

Thurston’s email added, “Riverbend has made some important gains in achievement over the last year, and we want to maintain that progress. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to hire another teacher to reduce the class sizes. But, I don’t expect there to be any progress on this issue, or more information, before the (Sept. 11) board meeting.”

At Riverbend, Avenson and Savikko said they are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Some parents have offered to volunteer in their children’s classes, and staff can potentially be reassigned from their current duties to support teachers where they are needed, according to Avenson.

“Our goal is to prepare every kid for fifth grade. … We’re going to achieve that goal whether we get (an additional) teacher,” said Avenson. “We’re prepared, if we get that teacher, to move forward as soon as possible. And if we don’t get the teacher, I have a plan to move forward to help these classrooms get the job done. So we’re going to get it done either way.”

Savikko added, quietly, “But it’d be more fair to the kids, with less kids.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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