Concord school board gives more time to class size policy question

  • Students in Mike Pelletier's fifth-grade class at Christa McAuliffe School work on math problems on January 11, 2019. Pelletier has 26 students in his class, two less students than what Concord's class size policy allows. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Students in Mike Pelletier’s fifth-grade class at Christa McAuliffe School work on math problems on Friday. Pelletier has 26 students in his class, two fewer students than what Concord’s class size policy allows. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Students in Mike Pelletier's fifth-grade class at Christa McAuliffe School work on math problems on January 11, 2019. Pelletier has 26 students in his class, two less students than what Concord's class size policy allows. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/12/2019 9:01:45 PM

As the school year approached, Concord’s Christa McAuliffe School was faced with a problem: 69 students were signed up for three kindergarten classes, which would have broken down to 23 students per class.

That many 5- and 6-year-olds would have exceeded the school district’s guidelines for a maximum kindergarten class size of 20 students.

Mill Brook School was in a similar position – the school would have had 21 or more students per kindergarten class.

The school district hired more teachers at both schools to get those class sizes down, Superintendent Terri Forsten said.

Now that the district is approaching budget season, it’s also reexamining its policy about class sizes after several parents expressed concern.

Class sizes are one of the district’s crucial budget drivers. Forsten said she relies on the policy’s guidelines to determine how much staff the district needs on a year-to-year basis. Generally, she said adding a teacher can cost the district around $90,000, including salary and benefits.

The issue was prominent last year when parents voiced their concerns about proposed teacher position cuts, particularly in elementary schools, in response to declining enrollment numbers.

The school board ultimately stuck with those cuts but pledged to take a deep-dive into its class size policies over the coming year, with particular attention to special education students.

The board was set to reaffirm its policy last Monday. They decided to wait, however, to allow for more public feedback.

Forsten said Thursday the administration considers the makeup of a class, including how many students have English as a Second Language or specialized education needs, when determining class sizes.

Then there are practical constraints, such as the physical space in the classroom.

At the meeting, parents present seemed worried that the class sizes could swell toward the policy’s outer limits.

“The vast amount of classes are beautifully sized,” said Rachel Goldwasser, who has a second grader and a child who will enter kindergarten next year. “But there are a few bubbles that have percolated over the years.”

Goldwasser said those “bubbles” included a few larger fourth- and fifth-grade classes.

“...Those numbers are well within the policy that was passed in 1983 that you’re considering tonight, but I guess I would implore you to consider looking closely at that policy, soliciting community feedback ... before passing it,” Goldwasser continued.

Deodonne Bhattarai said the issues also worried her because her preschooler has an individualized education plan, and that class size can impact children with special needs.

The policy, which is over 30 years old, dictates that kindergarten classes could be anywhere from 14 to 20 students, with 17 being the objective; 18 to 24 students in grades 1 through 3, with 21 being the objective; and 22 to 28 students in grades 4 through 6, with 25 being the objective.

In older grades, 15 is the minimum and 30 is the maximum. Classes fewer than 15 need the approval of the superintendent. 

Currently, the smallest class size is a kindergarten class of 15 at Abbot-Downing School; the largest is a 27-student fifth-grade class, also at Abbot-Downing.

The policy was on its second reading, meaning it could have been passed Monday night. Board members noted the policy has already been discussed at its policy committee meetings, which typically suffer from low attendance.

But school board member Chuck Crush said revisiting the policy without actively seeking feedback wouldn’t be good practice. 

“Looking at the policy, it’s pure numbers, just black and white numbers,” he said. “During the budget season last year, we heard a lot about the diversity of our students, from teachers, form parents and other stakeholders. I think that needs to be a part of the (discussion). I couldn’t support it as it is.”

Enrollment in New Hampshire has been declining for years, and Concord is no different, according to school district documents. The district lost 612 students across all grades from 2007 to 2017, according to its 2017 enrollment report.

Last year, the district had 4,442 students. It currently has about 110 fewer, according to district documents.

Ultimately, administrations cut eight teaching positions from the district last year in response to those declining numbers. But the district also has a contingency fund, Forsten said, that can be used if class sizes swell at the last minute.

The policy will be revisited on Feb. 6 at 5:30 p.m. Members of the public are encouraged to submit written comment prior to the meeting if they are unable to attend.




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