The growth in enrollment with increases in class size dominated the discussion as the School Committee held its first meeting of the 2018-2019 school year, Thursday, Sept. 13. Arlington public schools have an increase of 250 students over last year [TRUE?] and an overall increase in enrollment for a total of 5,890 students for the entire school system.
Arlington public schools have experienced the largest gain in students in recent years -- 366.
Superintendent Kathy Bodie and School Committee members explored various approaches to how the school system could accommodate this rate of growth, including having a 2015 study updated.
Robert Spiegel, human-resources director, reported on staff hiring, which included new staff, including a larger number of teaching assistants, in response to the higher enrollment.
Bodie told the committee that as of the first day of school, Sept. 4, kindergarten enrollment was 584 students, compared to the official Oct. 1 2017, kindergarten number of 551. The number of all students for the first day of this year was 366 higher than the official Oct. 1, 2017, number of 5,524.
Another trend in enrollment this year has been the change in the drop in the number of fifth-graders entering the sixth grade. For the last five years, it has been around 6 percent. However, this year the percentage of fifth-graders who did not continue on to the sixth grade is only 2 percent.
In response to the numbers, committee member Bill Hayner concluded, “The reality is that we are not [just] growing,” and he compared the increase to an explosion. “This is not a bubble,” he concluded, saying he was among those who believe that Arlington will continue to grow at the current rate.
Related to the increase in enrollment, two Bishop parents, during public comment, complained about overcrowded classrooms. Karen Barrett, who is a parent of two children attending the Bishop, reported that 17 classes had 22 or more students and eight had 25 or more. She pointed out these overcrowded classrooms were not just occurring this year but have been true for several years and were predicted by the 2015 report by demographer Robert McKibben.
She stressed that the committee should not respond by discussing what to do 10 years from now. Instead, she asked that they respond to her question, “What are you going to do today?”
Sarah Popper, a parent of a Bishop second-grader, followed Barrett’s remarks by detailing the specific conditions in the second grade, which has the largest class sizes -– 25, 25 and 26 -- while second-grade class size for Arlington schools averages 22.8 students. Moreover, this cohort, she continued, has had the largest class sizes since entering Bishop as kindergartners. She conceded that the second grade is assigned a full-time teaching assistant. However, she pointed out that this teaching assistant has to divide her time among three classrooms, leaving a single teacher with 25 or more students the majority of the school day.
Later in the meeting, Bodie pointed to the lack of additional classrooms at Bishop, so that for now these classes would have high enrollment. The principal and teachers have rejected a proposal to use the art or music room for a classroom.
Bodie proposed that the Bishop be given some additional teaching assistants to meet the immediate enrollment increases and the reconfiguring the district and increasing the buffer zones in the future to allow for more equitable class sizes.
Committee member Jane Morgan responded to Bodie’s suggestions by saying, “Hope is not a strategy,” and pointed out the precarious situation that exists at the Bishop, Brackett and Dallin schools. She posed a hypothetical case of a family with triplets moving into one of these neighborhoods. None of the three elementary schools with their current enrollments could manage an additional three students in one grade.
Morgan voiced another concern -- the lack of full-time teaching assistants for a single class. The problem with sharing teaching assistants for the first- and second-grade classrooms, she explained, is that teaching assistants spend “a few hours here and a few hours there,” with the bad result of them “splitting themselves into slivers among so many kids.”
Chair Kirsi Allison-Ampe’s proposal to update or redo the demographic study by McKibben met with unanimous approval of the committee members and Bodie. In addition to being an aid to planning, a more up-to-date demographic report, Hayner suggested, would help voters understand the need for an override.
WILL McKIBBEN DO UPDATE?
Bodie ended the discussion by reminding the committee that the quality of teaching was a greater factor in educational achievement than class size. Although this result did not hold for K-2, the benefit of smaller class size was found only in classes of fewer than 18n [NUMBER?] students, which Arlington could not support.
Spiegel reported that Arlington has hired 65 new teachers/team chairs/specialists for the 2018-2019 year. Forty-four of them are replacements, and 21 are new positions. He told the committee that 16 of them had been teaching assistants, building subs or tutors within the system. Spiegel noted, “The policy is to hire from within whenever possible.” [link to report]
In addition to those in teaching positions, the school system has hired 47 new teaching assistants, building subs and tutors. Twelve of them have master's degrees and other are in the process of earning master's degrees.
Spiegel announced that a number of vacancies remain be filled for long-term subs, day-care assistants and teaching assistants at every level. He suggested that the committee and those in attendance to tell others of these vacancies.
Many nonteaching staff were hired over the summer, including one bus driver, food service employees and traffic supervisors. Three new positions were created for traffic supervisors for the Gibbs school plus a new principal for the Gibbs School.
Bodie announced that the Thompson addition was finished and the one at Hardy will be completed in early December, with the transition occurring during the winter break. She was extremely pleased that the removal of the stage in the cafeteria resulted a much more open space. The Lake Street Playground is due to be finished this week.
The footprint design for the high school rebuild was approved the Mass. School Building Authority, allowing the project to move the schematic design phase. In this phase, more design features will be developed by next February and a clearer picture of the costs will be determined this winter.
Bodie announced that the AHS building meetings were open and can be followed on ahsbuilding.org. In addition, the building committee has scheduled a number of public forums at Town Hall -- Sept. 24, Oct. 24 and Nov. 27. The first of these will cover a presentation and discussion of the site, green space and traffic patterns. Feedback from attendees is encouraged.
In other business, the committee members appointed Kathleen Bodie to the EDCO as a voting member, heard a discussion of the speecial-education program report, reviewed district goals and discussed the summer professional-development report.
This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jo Anne Preston was published Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018.