Expect smaller school classes next year

"An initiative approved by voters will translate into seven additional teachers and smaller class sizes beginning next fall in the South Whidbey School District.The school board held a public hearing Wednesday on Initiative 728, the class size initiative. Administrators from each school attended, as did a handful of interested parents.I-728 designates certain state revenues to schools to reduce class sizes and provide additional teacher training. Dr. Martin Laster, South Whidbey's superintendent, said the funding works out to $194 per student, or a total of $433,000 next year in this district.This looks like a windfall and it absolutely is . . . but it's in the context of potentially less funds, Laster said. He was referring to action in Olympia where the Legislature may cut elsewhere in education.Assuming the $433,000 holds up, Laster said plans are to hire seven additional teachers, each costing an average of $55,640 annually including benefits. That totals $389,480, leaving some money for training and other uses allowed by I-728.Most of the new teachers will go to the two elementary schools. Bernie Mahar, primary school principal, and Doug Hale, intermediate school principal, said the average class size at present is 22.7 students in grades K-5. The target for next year is 19-20 students per class. In addition, more multi-age classroom opportunities will be provided.Laster, answering a question from citizen Jamie McNett, said research shows the ideal student count in an elementary classroom is 15. While I-728 won't reach that level, Laster said, We're moving to it.Sonya Simmons, mother of a girl in first grade, expressed support for smaller class sizes. She has a great teacher, but there's 24 kids -- that's too many kids, she said.Another parent, Kathy Banks, also endorsed the class size reduction effort, but lamented that districtwide, the new I-728 money results in only 1.5 fewer students per classroom. What is one teacher going to do to reduce class sizes? she asked. It's depressing for me to look at this.The middle school and high school will receive only one additional teacher next year because the emphasis will be on elementary students. But the upper level principals welcomed even this small addition.Greg Willis, Langley Middle School principal, said the I-728 funding will allow five additional teacher periods per day at his school. He is proposing two learning labs, to immerse students in reading and math. The other three periods could be electives, such as language arts and science, where students could go beyond the normal instruction to specialize in individual pursuits. The teacher would coordinate individual projects. It's exciting to have a person like that, Willis said.High school Principal Mike Johnson said the additional teacher there would likely be used to reduce the size of math and language arts classes.Laster emphasized that planning is preliminary at this point. We're talking about ideas; we're not saying this is going to happen or that is going to happen, he said. Members of the public should comment by May 31, after which the planning will become part of the budget process. A final I-728 spending plan must be submitted to the state by Aug. 31. "

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