Nearly 100 parents attended the Board of Education meeting last week to protest the board’s decision to allow them to transfer their children to other schools, and to demand more and smaller classes for the Jennie E. Hewitt Elementary School’s kindergartners and second-graders.
Hewitt is the most populated school in the district, with 446 students, and kindergarten and second grade are the most crowded. In 2013-14 there will be three sections of each, with 25 children in all three second-grade classes, 25 in two of three classes of kindergartners and 24 in one kindergarten class as of now.
Parents filled Room 112 at South Side High School on Aug. 7 to voice their concerns about the crowding. Twenty got up to speak, and all asked the board to add more classes.
Late last month, anticipating crowded classrooms, the school board passed a measure allowing parents of students who would be in classes of 23 or more to transfer their children to another school with class sizes of 19 or fewer. The hope was that this would help even out the distribution of students in the district without redrawing schools’ boundary lines. The board sent a letter to parents of students who qualified to notify them.
Board President Liz Dion said that trustees did not know how many parents would sign up, but they did not expect the backlash at last week’s meeting. Parents said they did not want to move their children to different schools — they wanted to keep them at Hewitt and have smaller classes.
“We didn’t think anybody would get upset by this letter,” Dion said. “And there were people who were very happy about it.”
Though the Hewitt parents were clamoring for another teacher — there is a classroom in the school’s attic space that is currently unused — trustees said they would wait until they received the final enrollment numbers at their meeting on Aug. 28 before they made a decision.
“Historically, it’s always been the 26th child that starts the discussion,” Dion said. “Whether it’s splitting or adding a [teaching assistant], it’s the 26th child. Prior to the 26th child, we’ve never had that discussion. It’s never been our procedure to talk about splitting when it’s been 25 children or less. And basically, they’re asking us to split classes with 25 or 24 because they have the room.”
“For my kids to be in a class with 26 children scares me,” said Jennifer Papadapolous. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I have only the highest expectations for my children.”
Splitting a section of 26 or more students into two smaller classes isn’t the district’s first choice, Dion explained. Sometimes, instead of adding another class, the district will hire a teaching assistant to work in the larger class. The T.A.s the district hires are all certified teachers, and are often eventually hired by the district.
According to Dion, the district budgeted for a total of 77 sections but is only planning 76 right now. So, if it has to add another teacher, it has the money set aside to do so. Teachers are more expensive than T.A.s, however: The district budgets about $80,000 for a starting teacher, including salary and benefits, while a T.A. costs around $30,000.
Though Hewitt’s kindergarten and second grade classes have not yet exceeded 25 students, some parents argued that they knew of more students who would be entering second grade but had not yet registered. “I’m very concerned and troubled that we’re going to turn our teachers into babysitters,” said parent Maura Russell. “I don’t want this to be just a Hewitt issue. If [the schools] have the space, and the numbers are where they are right now, they should really consider breaking them out. The kids deserve better than what this is going to give them.”
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