Milton teachers union: Classes too large
MILTON A surge in grade school class sizes in the Milton School District has drawn concern from the teachers union and is prompting the district to review its policies.
A growing number of students in fourth and fifth grade classrooms has teachers concerned and stressed, even in the early days of the new school year, said Michael Dorn, president of Milton Education Association, the district's teachers union.
District records provided to The Gazette show that since 2009, average class size at Northside Intermediate School have climbed from 25 students to nearly 27 in fifth grade classrooms and from 26 students to more than 28 in fourth grade classrooms.
At the same time, the district this year has trimmed a class section from the first, second and third grade levels at Milton East Elementary School and cut one class section at the fifth grade level. Those reductions come even as enrollments have held steady and even increased in most of those grade levels, according to district records.
Dorn sent an open letter to the school board this week that called class sizes in fourth and fifth-grade sections at Northside Intermediate School "simply too large" and "unacceptable."
The union would like to see classes of less than 25 students in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms, Dorn told The Gazette.
Three or four extra students in a classroom is "a big difference" for teachers, Dorn said. State and federal guidelines require teachers to give students a certain amount of individual attention, particularly if the students are struggling in math or reading.
With more students, it becomes a difficult balancing act for teachers.
"The biggest concern I'm hearing from teachers is that they don't have time to give every student the individual attention and focus that they may need," Dorn said.
The district has hired extra classroom aides this year, along with a new math "coach," school officials said. Dorn said that helps, but it's not enough.
The teachers union wants the district to hire more teachers during this school year and create new class sections—particularly at the fourth and fifth-grade levels, he said. That would thin the largest classrooms.
The district does not have a policy that sets a cap on class sizes. By comparison, Janesville Schools has a policy on maximum class size set at 25 students for kindergarten through third grade and 30 students in fourth through eighth grades.
In the past, the board and district officials have worked to respond to large class sizes on a "case-by-case" basis, Milton Superintendent Mike Garrow said.
But that method has broken down in the last few years amid state cuts and budget slashing within the district, Dorn said.
"There was always no real decision on it. It was just, ‘We have this many students and, OK, if we need to hire more teachers, we hire more teachers,'" Dorn said. "They (the administration and the board) have always assured us (teachers) that they'd monitor class sizes and have staffing that ensured class sizes remained reasonable.
"That's happened, until the last few years."
The district plans a special school board meeting to discuss class sizes. It would likely be held prior to the board's next regular meeting Sept. 24, Garrow said.
Garrow said the district wants to be responsive to concerns over class sizes but that he would be hesitant to "get in a corner" by adding teachers and class sections midyear or setting a cap on class sizes.
"Is it (adding teachers) feasible right now? Certainly. Is it sustainable? I don't know. That's a question you have to ask year to year," he said.
Garrow said he doesn't believe there's an ideal number of students for class size, and he would not say whether he thought 28 students was too many for one classroom.
He said he believes some teachers could be better than others at having larger classes.
School board member Janet Green, who is a former school principal in the Rockford, Ill., School District, said her first year teaching was in a classroom of 25 students.
"I remember that being a handful," Green said.
Still, Green pointed out the challenges of adding new teachers and class sections midyear. For one, it would create a "ripple effect" because it would require adding a section of physical education, art and music for each new class.
She added that there is limited space for additional classrooms in most of the schools.
It could take about nine weeks to hire extra teachers, Garrow said. It could be a shock for some students to be moved midyear to a new classroom with a new teacher.
In the fifth-grade, it would mean moving three or four students from each classroom. Garrow said he wasn't sure how the district would decide which students to relocate.
"I've already talked to parents who have said ‘If you're adding class sections, you're not moving my child,'" Garrow said.
Dorn conceded challenges exist, but he argued there's an overriding need for individual students to get the most attention possible from teachers.
"We have to make these kids a top priority, and frankly, it's your (the administration and board's) job to find a way to make it happen," he said.