Education

Classes are getting smaller for NC’s youngest students. But there are trade-offs.

Some North Carolina elementary school families may be in for a surprise when they start a new school year Monday and find classrooms of more than 30 students and art and music classrooms converted into regular classrooms.

State lawmakers lowered class sizes for kindergarten through third grade this year by one student. The need to meet the new requirement is causing some elementary schools to make changes this year such as sacrificing their art and music classrooms to have “art on a cart” with teachers bringing their supplies into classrooms.

Changes at elementary schools will be more widespread in 2018 when average class sizes drop by as much as an additional four students in some grade levels. In Wake County alone it will lead to the loss of 9,500 classroom seats at a time when 2,500 additional students in kindergarten through third-grade are expected by 2021.

Some options that have been mentioned for 2018 in Wake County include adding trailers, moving students to schools that have space, changing what grade levels are offered at some elementary schools and changing some schools to a year-round calendar.

“This is another case where it’s almost that the cure is worse than the disease,” Wake school board member Jim Martin said at a meeting earlier this month. “The alleged reason for this classroom-size legislation was because we wanted better instruction, we wanted smaller class sizes so there could be more opportunities for children, etc. etc.

“The cure is now saying, ‘We’re going to actually have to cram you in because there are not spaces.’ Because there are not spaces your extra opportunities like music and art are going to be restricted.”

But Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Weddington, said people worried about the class-size reductions should calm down and stop spreading “doom and gloom.”

“It seems to me to be more appropriate to sit down together and talk about the various options about what makes sense to meet the needs of the kids rather than the needs of the adults,” he said.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Superintendent Clayton Wilcox says this year’s requirements aren't creating major stress, in part because CMS has already been working to lower class sizes at many schools. There’s more concern about 2018-19, when the class-size mandates get stricter.

“For us right now, it has not been an incredibly traumatic experience,” Wilcox said Tuesday.

The controversy began last year when state lawmakers inserted into the budget changes that would have sharply lowered K-3 class sizes starting in the 2017-18 school year. Lawmakers said the smaller class sizes would help improve education for young students.

Lawmakers dropped average K-3 class sizes for school districts from 21 students to between 16 and 18 children, depending on grade level. Legislators also dropped maximum individual K-3 classroom sizes from 24 students to between 19 and 21 students, depending on grade level.

School officials around the state charged that the class-size change took away their flexibility to fund art, music and physical education teachers. School leaders warned they might have to lay off thousands of art, music and PE teachers to come up with the money to hire the new K-3 classroom teachers.

In a compromise, state lawmakers agreed to delay most of the K-3 class size reductions until the 2018-19 school year. Legislators also said they’d look at separately funding art, music and PE teachers.

“Insisting on continuing this unfunded mandate in the face of this chaos is nonsensical to me,” said Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the liberal N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.

In the meantime, elementary schools are working this school year under rules that lowered K-3 class sizes to 20 students for districts and 23 children for individual classes. Wake encouraged elementary school principals to keep their K-3 class sizes at 20 students.

At Sycamore Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, principal Kristen Faircloth said she had to search every “nook and cranny” to find enough classrooms.

Sycamore made several changes this year, including converting classrooms for special-education and academically gifted students into regular classrooms. Those teachers are now meeting with students in smaller rooms such as storage closets,

Several teachers who teach electives lost their classrooms and now carry their supplies on carts. They teach “super electives” that have 30 students coming from two different classrooms..

Faircloth, a member of a committee helping Wake elementary schools come up with options for meeting the new class sizes, said principals are doing their best to make things work.

“Is it ideal? No,” she said. “But it is something that we’re having to do. And we’re still focusing on teaching and learning and making sure that’s taking place as opposed to not at all.”

For 2018, Faircloth is looking at options such as converting the art and music rooms, having multi-age classes of students from different grades and having classrooms being used at the same time by two different groups of students. A Wake survey found some elementary schools have already began using those options.

Preliminary data shows some Wake principals are considering options in 2018 such as moving to art and music on a cart and increasing class sizes in fourth and fifth-grades to as many as 32 students. There are no state limits for those grades.

“My child having art on a cart for one year will be OK,” said Aaron Marcin, principal of Lead Mine Elementary School in Raleigh. “But if he has five years of modified art instruction and music instruction, now I have concerns about that.”

Renee Sekel, a Cary parent, said families prefer keeping classrooms for art, music and gifted students over reducing class sizes.

“Small class sizes are great, but there’s a way to do it right,” said Sekel, founder of Save Our Schools, a group lobbying for state funding for art, music and PE teachers. “If the small class sizes come at the expense of space for music and art and (academically gifted) kids then it’s not necessarily worth it.”

Wake is focusing on helping 20 elementary school principals who say they can’t meet the new state requirements next year even with going to art and music on a cart. Possible solutions will be presented at the Sept. 5 school board meeting and could be included as part of the first draft of the 2018-19 student assignment plan that would be released Sept. 19..

A wide range of options have been floated so far in Wake. For instance, some fifth-grade classes could be moved to middle schools.

Another idea is to have some single-story elementary schools become K-2 campuses since state law requires kindergarten and first-grade students to always be on the ground floor. Those schools could be paired with nearby multi-story elementary schools that would be converted to only have third- through fifth-grades.

“There might be a few things you’ll notice this year,” said Marcin, a member of the Wake committee that will propose options to the school board. “This year is the calm before the storm.

“Next year there will be accommodations being made in schools across our district and more people will be aware of the impact in 2018-19.”

Lawmakers are expecting to get an earful from their local school districts before the 2018 changes go into effect.

Legislators need to take seriously concerns about the difficulty of implementing the class-size reductions, according to Terry Stoops, director of education research studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation.

“If the General Assembly is going to maintain these class-size requirements, then they’re going to have to come to a solution that is beneficial to the school districts, will effectively reduce class sizes for kids and be budget friendly,” he said. “Certainly one of the biggest concerns with reducing class sizes is the budget concerns.

“Finding additional space and hiring additional teachers can be expensive, even if it’s limited to a few grades.”

Horn, chairman of the House Education Committee, agreed that legislators should be talking with school officials about whether adjustments are needed.

“What may need to be done in Wake County may not be the same as what’s needed in Onslow County,” he said. “We need to work together to find a satisfactory solution rather than scream that the sky is falling.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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