Getting creative on class sizes

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November 19, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Minneapolis Public Schools administrators and principals are finding creative solutions to the district’s “good problem” — rising enrollment — and the challenges it poses for managing class sizes.

Tight classrooms are nothing new in Southwest Minneapolis, where the district is spending $8 million to expand Lake Harriet Community School’s lower campus and the new Ramsey Middle School opened this year to accommodate wave of young students. But K-12 public school enrollment in Minneapolis increased by nearly 1,000 students this year over last fall, and the classroom crunch is spreading.

“I think what it is, is we’re feeling it in more areas of the city,” said School Board Member Jill Davis. “We’ve always known the Southwest quadrant is tight, and I think it’s tighter than it used to be.”

The district’s targets are 26 students per classroom up to third grade and 32 students beyond that. North Side schools have a lower K­-3 target of 21 students per classroom. Jim Liston of the district’s Student Accounting Department said class sizes were “probably slightly over” district targets in some cases this year, but couldn’t provide specific school-by-school figures as of early November.

Assistant Superintendent Theresa Battle said the district spent $3.1 million on staffing adjustments this fall when several hundred more students than expected showed up for school. A district task force on enrollment — the same one that recommended the changes at Ramsey and Lake Harriet — is scrutinizing 2010 Census data while it prepares another set of recommendations, Battle added.

The recipe for relief is a complicated one, and some of the most obvious solutions — constructing new school buildings or adding on to old ones — are also the most expensive. In the meantime, principals like Windom Spanish Dual Immersion School’s Lucilla Yira are finding ways to get the most out of limited space.

Comfortable, for now

The increasingly popular magnet program at Windom added a fourth kindergarten classroom last year and this fall saw enrollment hit 500 students. For now, there’s still breathing room in a building with capacity for about 550 to 585 students, Yira said.

That’s in part because Windom has a shared-use agreement with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for classroom and office space in a recreation center connected to the school. In exchange for use of the classrooms on school days, Windom reserves six seats in its Hi-Five preschool program for neighborhood children.

Yira shifted classrooms in her building this summer. An English language-learner class with just a handful of students has ample space in small room formerly used for kindergarteners, while the kindergarteners have found more space in another part of the building.

Those four kindergarten classrooms all have 26 to 28 students, Yira said, putting them at or above the district target. But size alone isn’t the whole story. Yira lowers the student-to-teacher ratio in those kindergarten classrooms by adding both an educational assistant and a Spanish-speaking exchange teacher placed at the school through the non-profit Amity Institute, so that there are three adults for each class.

“It’s working,” she said. “And right now, the numbers, it’s comfortable.”

But Yira also gets emails daily from parents interested in Windom, and she expects enrollment could near 550 students next school year. When schools are that close to capacity — and some already are — creative solutions bump up against physical barriers.

Art and science

A referendum approved by voters in 2008 raised $60 million annually for eight years, half of it dedicated to managing the district’s class sizes. A portion of the district’s property tax levy is dedicated to the same purpose, and the School Board is slated to vote on a 4-percent increase in the levy this December, bringing it to $172.4 million in 2013.

District administrators originally proposed a 7.4-percent increase — an eye-popping suggestion in a year when the city and county pledged to limit the burden on homeowners.

Even so, School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon said the district might have missed out on an opportunity to start a community conversation. After a decade-long decline, the district is growing, and a recent shift back to a community school model — where most students attend schools in their neighborhoods — means it has less flexibility to manage enrollment, Gagnon said.

“I think that’s the way to go, but schools have to fit, and in [Southwest] they currently do not,” she said, adding that she thinks capital improvements to increase space are necessary.

Her colleague, Jill Davis, said a larger levy increase seemed too much to ask, given the state of the economy.

At a September School Board meeting, Davis expressed frustration at the task of selling the public on even a 4-percent levy increase when emails about too-large class sizes were filling her inbox. For many, the district strategies at reducing class sizes seemed unclear and unsuccessful.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said district leaders were “not trying to be disingenuous” about it efforts.

Added Johnson: “I think one thing we’re realizing is that the management of class size becomes an art and a science, but it becomes even more difficult when there’s no capacity in the building.”