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# My Turn: Nolan's class has 31 students

Posted: October 30, 2012 - 12:00am

“They just added another student to Nolan’s class,” my friend Brad told me yesterday. “Now they’re up to 31 kids. How did this happen?”

When confronted with the issue of high numbers of pupils in Juneau classrooms, School District officials typically point to the Alaska legislature: “We feel your pain,” they say, “But they dropped our funding!” And while this is certainly true, Nolan’s overcrowded 5th-grade classroom at Auke Bay Elementary School is also an outcome of how our School Board chooses to prioritize District expenses, and about how they decide to carry out — or to not carry out — their business.

The number of pupils in your child’s classroom depends upon how many teachers are employed at their school. And the basis for establishing that number begins in February, with an estimate of how many kids will be enrolled in the upcoming year. The School Board adopts a pupil-to-teacher ratio (PTR) then simply divides the estimated number of kids by the PTR to determine how many teachers they will hire. Currently, the board has chosen PTRs of 22.0 for grades k-2, and 26.5 for grades 3-5.

In Nolan’s case, the district estimated his school would have of 155 pupils in grades 3, 4, and 5. Then they divided 155 by the PTR of 26.5, with a result of 5.8. The policy calls for “rounding up or down”, so they allocated 6 teachers to instruct grades 3 through 5 in his school.

But with a PTR of 26.5, how did Nolan end up with 31 kids in his class? It’s a result of averaging the PTRs across three grades. His 5th-grade class represents a “bulge” in enrollment; grades 3 and 4 have numbers that are actually below the PTR of 26.5, but the 5th-graders are stuffed like herring in a seine net, and poor Nolan’s education is suffering from it.

Along with bulges, there are other situations that can cause high numbers of pupils in your child’s classroom. Each of them points back to school district actions.

Nolan’s overcrowded classroom is not only a product of the district’s high PTR and an enrollment bulge, it’s also the consequence of the district having no rules for an upper limit on the number of pupils that can be placed in an elementary school classroom. Does anyone care to place a bet on how big Nolan’s classroom will get before the problem is addressed?

And in other cases, over-stuffed classes come from enrollments that greatly exceed the February estimates, and not enough teachers are allocated when the school year begins. When the school board shrugs their shoulders and decides to ignore any adjustments, you end up with what is happening to the kids at Harborview this year, with teachers who can’t effectively teach, and 26 five-year-old kids bumping shoulders in kindergarten classrooms that were designed for about 30 percent fewer students.

And in still more cases, huge numbers are simply a reflection of the high PTRs adopted by the board in the first place. To meet their expenses, the board has raised PTRs in elementary schools for the last 3 consecutive years, and we now commonly see unacceptably high numbers in classrooms throughout the district, even if the PTR formulas are strictly adhered to.

And finally, and maybe most troubling, overcrowding can relate to the philosophies of some school officials, who simply don’t believe that crammed classrooms should be placed very high in the budget priorities. To support their position, they make vague references to “the research” and ideas that Bill Gates has floated (“Let’s pay teachers more, then raise class sizes!”), all the while ignoring a large body of science, and common sense, that points to how crucial classroom sizes are to early learning.

In any event, this is your chance to make a difference. Tell your school board they should abandon their current high PTRs and insist that they adopt lower levels in next year’s budget. Point out they should never “round down” when allocating teachers to schools, and make them establish an upper limit on how many students can be in a classroom. Then advocate for a policy of solving problems that come about when actual enrollments stray far from projections, with provisions that the district treat all schools equally. And tell them to apply common sense to their notions about classrooms: that smaller class sizes do make a difference, and that as our elected officials, we put it in their hands to make it happen.

• Iverson of Juneau is a parent of two children who attend elementary school in the Juneau School District.

# Comments (11)

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473
Points
10/30/12 - 05:52 am
7
1

## Iverson

Well written Kurt, I think you should run for school board next year... My check will be in the mail for your campaign as soon as you file!

573
Points
10/30/12 - 07:34 am
7
1

## Thanks

Great piece. Logical and to the point. It would be interesting to know elementary class sizes in Ketchikan Sitka Kenai Anchorage Fairbanks and Wasilla. All districts get same state funding. Do they have same problem or are they allocating funds differently?

573
Points
10/30/12 - 07:34 am
2
1

## Thanks

Great piece. Logical and to the point. It would be interesting to know elementary class sizes in Ketchikan Sitka Kenai Anchorage Fairbanks and Wasilla. All districts get same state funding. Do they have same problem or are they allocating funds differently?

6683
Points
10/30/12 - 07:37 am
7
1

## Build another school.

Isn't that Juneau's approach to class size? Funny... Didn't work with the new highschool... er... District offices...

4368
Points
10/30/12 - 08:37 am
3
3

## Crazy numbers

31 is simply way, way too many kids. A good teacher can do wonders with 20, maybe even 25 kids. At 31, even the best teacher is mostly keeping order and scratching the surface of each student's individual needs.

Typical reading or math 'periods' are about 50 minutes long. This means that in a classroom with 31 kids, IF the teacher manages to check in with and help each student, and not taking away any time for kids getting ready or putting their stuff away, finding their books, writing a chart on the board, etc. - - that each child will receive about 90 seconds of the teacher's time.

2045
Points
10/30/12 - 09:16 am
6
1

## We spend too much now

We spend astronomical amount of money on local education so what's the problem? This isn't because we don't spend too much. I think it's because certain people make bad choices.

84
Points
10/30/12 - 12:44 pm
3
3

## Hmmmm.

While the allocation of teachers is set by the board through the budget process, how that allocation is used is determined at the site level, usually by the principal. There are means for principal's to deal with bulges, usually by setting up multi-age classrooms. It would be unusual for a bulge to just appear in 5th grade, rather, this would have been a bulge group from kindergarten on.

I have spent several years attending school board budget meetings. I've never heard a school board member, or an administrator, advocate for larger classrooms. I have heard lengthy, painful discussions on how to obtain a balanced budget when the largest single expense of the district is personnel (easily 85%).

I believe each board member would be thrilled to lower PTR; but the budget has to be balanced and cuts would have to be made.

Where would YOU make those cuts? Just pointing at Administration is not specific enough; since there appear to be different definitions of "administration". Does that mean building principals? Only those in central office? Would you cut community schools? How many "administrators" do you think would need to be cut to pay for ONE teacher? Who would take on the duties of the cut administrator? Who, for that matter, will take on Laury Scandling's responsibilities when she leaves in December, as part of the FY13 budget cuts?

I to believe that PTR is too high, my children are affected too. I also believe that school board members are doing their absolute best with the information and resources (ie funds) that they have. The school board will be beginning their budget process again in the near future and I am sure they will welcome constructive input from the public.

10138
Points
10/30/12 - 02:51 pm
2
0

## The question is, will they

The question is, will they provide a list of all the JSD employees, their duties, and their salaries? I can cut it pretty easily, and it would be mostly central office staff and a few asst principals.

262
Points
10/30/12 - 04:33 pm
3
0

## Some History

You may recall when many in our community, including our former city manager, former city attorney and more than a few educators lead an effort to try to convince our school board and assembly to adopt a more conservative approach to building a BIG new high school.

We did this not because we didn't need more space, but because having two large high schools with matching programs would be a budget buster that would impact all schools, including elementary, across the district.

We didn't make too many friends in our efforts, but our clear eyed predictions were sane and, not surprisingly, have come true. Imagine how many teachers could be hired if we didn't have to staff, heat and program two large buildings.

Is it too late to change course? Is it possible at this point to adopt a better vision for how we educate Juneaus high schoolers? How about one large school and one small school with completely different programs and approaches, instead of the drastically failed Academies?

Anyone with knowledge and experience knows that students are diverse with differing learning styles and needs. Why not have schools serve our community with this understanding? Besides potentially saving a lot of money, we could also save a lot of students. A win win.

Do our leaders have the courage to change course? I hope so.

That's my \$.02

235
Points
10/31/12 - 06:47 am
1
0

## priorities

slallison:

“Money to the classroom” would be my highest priority in the budget. I would drop the PTR to 19 (or maybe lower) for K-2, and 23 for 3-5, and hire sufficient teachers to fill that need. THEN I would worry about who/what else to fund, giving careful scrutiny to each job and each program.

School board members do indeed “advocate for higher classrooms” when they raise the PTR. Raising the PTR is effectively a budget cut – a cut away from putting boots on the ground in the classroom. Forget what they say, and look at what they do.

2396
Points
11/02/12 - 01:36 am
0
0

## Great comment Mr. Good!

Hit the nail on the head about the second High School. Wasting funds on duplicate programs makes little sense....thinking outside the box and using the space for unique learning environments could free up some \$\$\$\$for elementary teachers

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