Class sizes in the Northfield District’s schools: some questions

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In Wednesday’s Northfield News: No quick fixes for class size troubles:

At a Feb. 12 school board meeting, several parents expressed concern over how big some classroom numbers have become, particularly at Greenvale Park Elementary… “We just don’t have the budget capacity right now (to lower the class sizes),” Richardson said.

In today’s (Saturday) Northfield News: Letter to the Editor from Diane Nead:

Concern over large classes was a big topic before the election. If the school board knew the levy increase would not be enough to reduce class sizes, then I think it was misleading not to inform the citizens of this before the election. Among friends, fellow parents and teachers I know, it was assumed that reducing class size would be first priority if the levy passed. Now that the election is over class size has moved to a “long-term issue”. I urge the school board to put the levy money to its best possible use by reducing class sizes in the school year. And I urge all those in the Northfield School District to contact the school board asking that they reduce class sizes before the money is spent elsewhere.

In the District’s levy referendum guide (PDF), distributed prior to the Nov. 7, 2006 election:

  • Your vote will make a difference for our students and for our communities. Reasonable class sizes, comprehensive programs, and high quality facilities are often cited as significant factors in helping to attract new students, families, businesses and industry to the area.
  • Voting YES means… Maintaining class sizes at the level for the next four to six years.

My questions:

  1. The District promised “reasonable class sizes” and at the same promised to maintain class sizes at the current level. Were they misleading us?
  2. Are the costs of Special Education a factor? It’s not mentioned in the Northfield News article.
  3. Why not consider reducing the busing of students to save money and put it towards reducing class sizes? In Wednesday’s StarTribune: Lessons in leg power: “Safe Routes to School is a new national program to help get kids to school the old-fashioned way. So far, 17 schools in Minnesota have won federal grants to encourage walking and biking.”

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126 thoughts on “Class sizes in the Northfield District’s schools: some questions”

  1. Yes Griff,these are the last two options the board is concidering. these options will be discussed at the next school board meeting. See website for time and place.

  2. I think I am now an “addicted blogger.” What a great discussion. I just logged on and have only made it halfway through the posts, but one idea is swirling around in my head.

    I remember as a Longfellow Elementary surdent back in the 60’s and 70’s we had what they called “enrichment activites.” If I remember correctly, on one Friday a month we could sign up for a special activity that day.

    That made me wonder about what it might be like to offer that same type of thing on a more regular basis. It would be simular to selecting college classes. There would be the the “required” (whatever that would include) classes that would be taken in your main classrom, but then there would be a part of the day or of the week for an elective. Spanish could be one of those electives.

    One could argue that this type of option would not allow for the benefits of learning through immersion. However, looking at the results of the study that ws referred to of Northfield’s program, it seems that the immersion type of program is not having the benefits one would expect at this point.

    Please excuse me if someone has already mentioned this type of option. Like I said, I have not made it through all the posts yet. Also, I do not claim to be any sort of expert on the issue. Maybe my comments are naive, but I wanted to throw them out there anyways.

  3. I realize that my last post was added out of the context of the thread. Just to be clear, my thoughts related to the issue of how we could offer options for enrichment (like Compenaros sp?) and also balance class size. Now that I have read more of the posts, I feel even less qualified to enter the discussion. The issue is very complicated.

    Also, I have to add that I would be very disappointed if the Reading Readiness Program was cut. I have personally seen the “nip it in the butt” strategy work.

  4. Hi Christine,

    The kids seem to sign up for a lot more electives than we had long ago (’86 NHS)– but I think they sign up in the spring– it is much like you suggest, but on paper instead of online.

    I am glad for choice and so I wouldn’t be the one to advocate for less electives. In fact, I wish there were ILP’s (and funding) for “gifted”, etc.– and I wish we truly offered classes based on various learning styles and talents. That’s where I think the system fails to inspire, etc.

    Limiting class size sounds pretty good to me but I wonder what the consequences would be…

    While I am thinking about it, long ago we NHS juniors and seniors took classes at St. Olaf and Carleton– and NHS didn’t have a lot of AP classes. I wonder if the current AP classes are better for the majority of kids, or what would be cheaper… etc.

    Geez, I can’t even wrap my brain around the concept of 45 kids in a regular classroom.

    I remember classes of 36 being a nightmare for me as a new teacher– younger teachers often seem to get the worst of it and they are just learning. Answer: Why don’t we advocate that it be the tenured, old, and wise teachers who are awarded the largest classes? Ha ha. Then we’d see some negotiation.

    But we’re in such a money pickle. What’s the real answer, I don’t know. I just want to know what is happening right now as they figure out schedules and assign classes to new teachers, etc.

    After my kids graduate (my youngest has four more years) I’ll still vote “yes” for any levy or bond– but I won’t be that interested in small details. Seems like education runs in cycles… Feels like the ’70’s, again, to me… Glad we’re out in four more years. Good luck to you who have kids in elementary school.

  5. Maybe I can do my part to keep a dead conversation (one that interests me) going. I realize that the powers the be, “thimruve…” or who ever they want to be referred to as, have the power to sensor my post, but I am going to post it anyways.

    I have been following the other conversations, and I have to say that I am confused about Bright’s comment regarding having things in Northfield to draw families and children. Was that a joke or not? I am a little slow sometimes.

    Like Holly, I am glad that my youngest will be a junior this year. And, like Holly, I will continue to support our schools by voting “yes.”

    Just to add to my last post, I know that electives have been a problem at the HS, and maybe there are too many for us to support. Yet, I still see how elective classes on a small scale might offer all our elementary kids options.

    I feel like I walked into a room, and everyone stopped talking. Let’s keep this conversation going.

  6. Actually, we haven’t been ‘talking’ for months. This entire issue came to the fore when I complained to the board about 30 kids in two of the Greenvale 3rd grades. Then the board looked at class size as a district wide issue. I had no idea that the H.S. had upwards of 40 in some of their rooms. I just knew that 60 3rd graders were being greatly shortchanged for the second year in a row. The board did approve a $150,000 contingency fund to help out with class size district wide. So, we shall see if that is enough to make a marked difference this year. The needs are great throughout the district.

    Don’t expect a lively discussion, we wrapped up last winter.

  7. I asked NHS Principal Leer about this (and I also asked them to discuss homework and what is reasonable)–

    It doesn’t seem like there is any specific effort to reduce class size at NHS. Further, I didn’t hear about any district decision to restore NHS teachers (severe cuts for a few years in a row and now we are living with it…)

    Just wondered what people had heard– it’s “that time of year” for setting schedules and the like.

    Sorry, Lisa, to bring this up again after you got your answer for Greenvale.

  8. Holly, I do not have an answer for Greenvale. We are still up in the air and have lost our principal to boot! Now someone new will need to pick up the ball and run with it.

    I cannot imagine running a class of 45 highschoolers, even if it is mostly a lecture class. In our grade school we have kids who I don’t think will even make it that far, though, if they don’t get more academic attention now. It is a painful dilemma all around.

    Now with the bridge collapse, bet we don’t get any more money allocated to education when bridges need to be properly maintained.

  9. Hi Lisa,

    Yes, there seems to be such a lack of dollars.

    The bridge collapse is a terrible thing, isn’t it… my gosh. I guess the Lake Street Bridge collapsed years ago, too?

    I guess I heard more about education dollars– the legislature voted to fully fund special education and I wonder if this doesn’t help Northfield as much as other districts (I am not against fully funding special ed, just thinking out loud that Northfield won’t receive as much of the funding).

    It would have been nice to have at least a 3% increase overall this year. Isn’t 4% a “cost of living” increase? I think they settled on 2%…

  10. What is the possibility of teaching Spanish in other ways,
    via community volunteers? distribution of Spanish learning
    materials-of which there are many types-using online computer
    offerings and other supplemental lessons?

    We see that so many people in Europe speak English now and in
    the past decades, how did they accomplish it?

    Bright

  11. Thank you, Holly. A receptive audience is an inspirational one.
    So I will offer you yet another hopefully good idea. How about
    a program for high school students who have teaching and other
    social services careers in mind, where they would receive credit
    for stepping into classrooms at Greenvale and working/learning
    as teacher aids? They could take small groups and work with them,
    or serve to directly help teachers with various aspects of work.
    Even an hour or two per student per week per classroom would serve to free up some energy, introduce a new sparkle, and make possible things that might otherwise fall to the wayside.

    Bright

  12. Holly:
    I don’t know if Greenvale is happy with the class size reduction efforts — I think (correct me if I’m wrong) only some went into effect before the end of the last school year. Extra help in the classroom is nice, but it’s still hard if you have some classes set because of Companeros, and other classes that might, by chance, or economics, or issues of parental availability or discipline, have issues that make it hard.

    But I do know that Greenvale improved in its test scores and is no longer in the No-Child-Left-Untested doghouse. They may have even done better in some areas than at least one other Nfld school. They don’t get as much good press as they deserve, in part, because Bridgewater is much more photogenic. But I don’t think the problem was ever with the Greenvale teachers. I think it had more to do with variables that are harder to manage.

    There are some changes coming at Greenvale: Some children in Companeros are leaving for other schools, and I hear they may have one class in 4th grade this year or 5th next, as a result of limits and/or student moves/school choices. I know of one GPES Companeros 4th-grader from a bilingual family who will be going to Prairie Creek because her brother goes there, they have an opening, and because they don’t want to be left out in the cold if limits are set and she’s no longer in the program in 5th grade, but perhaps there are no openings at Prairie Creek then.

    It’s messy stuff.

    Maybe we need to cut education funding so we can give our State Transportation Commissioner a raise for how well she explained her decision to have the I-35E bridge merely inspected more often, rather than reinforced as recommended? As Tom Neuville says, teachers get the summers off, after all, so it’s not the same as full-time, year-round work. We so appreciate when our public officials are working so hard to save on tax-dollars, and when the Governor vetos the added tier for income tax to protect the wealthy, to whom we should be grateful, some say, for creating so many jobs (they cut jobs too, but we forget). Inspires us all to be more fiscally responsible, which in turn inspires us all to work harder at helping our kids with their homework, taking more initiative as parents, which means we’ll have to spend even less on education in future years, when, to paraphrase Grover Norquist, we’ve shrunken government to a size where we can strangle it and finally be free (except for the feds and the Military-Industrial Complex).

    I think there will come a time when we’ll see public-funded schools and police and mail and government as the socialist conspiracy and redistribution of wealth that it is, and opt either for tax-free anarchy or a simple dictatorship, which Bush says he’d be fine with as long as he’s the dictator.

    I might stop by the Governor’s mansion later today to volunteer to mow his lawn and wash his car, so we can perhaps reduce class sizes a bit more. But hey, we have to be grateful. Even if the glass is only one-quarter full, that’s better than nothing, or a dictator, or a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, eh?

  13. Paul, and all, As a parent from GVP with a soon-to-be 4th grader I am not happy with the outcome. I am pleased with the recognition and the efforts, but the last I knew, only a 0.5 FTE was hired to help with the larger contemporary class. This will actually create more transitions for the kids as they are shuffled back and forth between two or three teachers. Since transitions and focus are challenging for many in this group, I’m not sure this help is the best for them. Then again, having another person to teach is better than 30 in a room all day.

    Regarding last year, nothing went into effect with contingency funds last year. Our principal scraped some funds together from the building fund (I believe it was) and was able to hire a math teacher for two hours a day; one for the over crowded 5th grade and one for the 3rd grade.

    I do not know the other two grade schools the way I know GVP, but I would have to say, that so far, the staff I am familiar with is second to none.

    Regarding Prairie Creek – that’s great if you can get in. I’ve been trying for a year now.

    There are programs where collage students assist in the class rooms once a week or so for a term.

  14. Hi Paul: Did you hear the House wanted 3% but the gov vetoed it? That’s why there was only a 2% increase (doesn’t cover inflation, does it?) Am I right about that? How are you doing, by the way? Long time no talk.

    Bright, re: have the older kids help in the elem classrooms. That’s a great idea . I think it does take a special kind of kid to do what you suggest, though– I think you should call the GATES coordinator and suggest it… or call NHS, I guess.

  15. Holly: I know the Gov. vetoed the 4th tier and budget-related things not to his liking, and it seemed that the Democratic majority in the MN house and Senate didn’t feel they had enough votes to override a veto, so they came up with something signable. When the stuff is happening, I have a hard time even listening to the news on the radio about MN politics, so I don’t know exactly how the education spending played out up to what was signed.

    Lisa: Thanks for the information about Greenvale. 4th grade will still be an issue, but in 2nd grade, the “contemporay” and Companeros still have some imbalance, now going in the other direction: Two sections of contemporary with around 18 each, and two sections of Companeros with 26 each (again, this is grade 2).

    I like the neighborhood school idea, but one drawback is that there seems to be a roller-coaster in terms of some of the student population. How can you be certain that the families living near Sibley, for instance, will be timing their childbirths somewhat in sync with one another so that you’ll maintain a certain number of classrooms for each grade? Impossible.

    This leads to a good argument for somewhat flexible boundaries to adjust for population fluctuations. If we could be just a bit flexible, not whole-hog, it might be a little more expensive with bussing, but I can’t imagine it being a fortune. If families wanted the younger child to attend the same school as the older sibling at the same school, the district would be a bit flexible. It might be just a matter of asking certain kids to walk a block in a different direction to catch a differen bus.

    But maybe someone has already thought about that, and maybe it’s just too hard, even with a great computer and software program, to look at where the school families live and tweak the boundaries so class sizes are a little more balanced. Or maybe they have (or could generate) maps with dots for where all the families in a given grade live, and maybe it could be done manually, mostly for new students (not asking, say, a 4th grader to switch schools).

    Anyone know how the boundary issues are deliberated?

  16. Paul, I know that two years ago (maybe 3) the district changed the boundaries when Companeros was divided up among Bridgewater and GVP. At that time a promise was made not to change the boundaries for the foreseeable future – maybe a certain number of years was given – because families were in such an upheaval over so many needing to switch schools. Flux boundaries were discusses at a few board meetings, but not adapted as a possible solution because it puts the same group of neighborhoods in the flux area over and over again. I hope this makes sense – I am functioning on too little sleep today….

  17. Hi, flux boundaries = nightmare.

    By the way, did they discuss having GP be grades 1-3, Sibley be 4-5, etc? Ha ha. That brings about the graduating class size problem– one large graduating class, another smaller the year after.

    If we only had a few dollars. I remember classes of 15!!!! I remember teaching classes of 15! Remember when that was ‘good education’ rather than ‘a waste of dollars’?

    Honestly.

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