Schools consider capping class sizes

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Beyond his well-documented enrollment increases, limited space and dwindling resources, Alexandria Superintendent of Schools Morton Sherman has another emerging concern.

His new students simply aren’t moving in where his district has room for them.

On the eve of his presentation of the Alexandria City Public Schools budget for the upcoming school year, Sherman introduced a proposed solution included in the calculations for his soon-to-be-released 2011 fiscal plan that would place a cap on elementary school class sizes and send surplus students to neighboring schools with room to spare.

The “modified open enrollment” strategy “is an efficient use of space and teachers that will result in lower costs for facilities and personnel while keeping class sizes small,” Sherman wrote Monday on his ACPS blog.

In a situation that’s far from perfect, Sherman thinks the new enrollment policy proposal is the best option available as budget pressures limit the ability to add classrooms and realigning school neighborhoods could prove ineffective.

“The idea of redistricting is something we’ve looked at real closely and it just doesn’t work … the darn kids move in where we have no space rather than where we have the space,” Sherman said.

“It’s by grade level, by class, by school,” he continued. “Even moving whole neighborhoods, the neighborhood might only have first graders when in fact we need to move third graders. We’re that tight.”

The proposal which would only affect newcomers to ACPS and grants an exception for siblings limits kindergarten classes to no more than 20 students, first and second grade sections to 22 students and third, fourth and fifth grade classrooms to 24, he said in an interview Tuesday.

In the past, Sherman said, schools would split an extra-large class because of late arrivals at the school, resulting in two groups of 12 or 13 students rather than one group of 26 or more and using twice the resources.

A version of the modified open enrollment plan was already put into effect this year at Samuel Tucker elementary school, a school built to hold less than 600 students but now houses more than 700, according to school officials.

Next year, estimates show that Tucker, a school with a roughly 50-percent turnover rate from year to year and the most affordable housing stock in its district, would experience 80 of the 81 cases where the policy comes into play, according to Sherman.

Tucker PTA President Janice McLaury was appreciative of the effect the plan could have for her school in the immediate future as ACPS deals with the issue citywide.

“We have seven kindergartens this year and likely have seven first grade classes next year … and it will just continue to grow and reach a capacity where it’s not possible” for the school to hold that many classes, McLaury said.

“When you have schools that are overcrowded and schools that are under capacity, at some point you do have to look at the short-term solution of sharing the student body because that’s what is best for the students,” McLaury said.

The modified open enrollment idea, which Sherman hopes will help ACPS get by until the 2011-2012 school year when adding classrooms becomes an affordable option, would send students to AYP-approved schools with extra space like Patrick Henry, James K. Polk and Charles Barrett elementary schools.

As one of the main overflow schools, Barrett PTA President Kay Arndorfer said parents have some concerns about the changes to their school.

“Even if you’re OK with the size of the school increasing, the fact that we’d have so many temporary students would be a concern,” Arndorfer said, citing disruptions it could cause within “the fabric of the community.”

In an interview Tuesday, School Board member Helen Morris praised the plan, calling it “well thought-through and worth consideration” even though it could be a hardship for some families.

“We’ve got to find ways that are least disruptive and most cost-efficient to make sure that every child has a seat in a classroom with a high quality teacher and the student-teacher ratio we set out for the school system,” Morris said.

The School Board has yet to vote on the proposal, which will be discussed at a policy committee meeting on January 30 and could be approved in February, Sherman said.

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