SEA CLIFF PARENTS URGE BOE TO CREATE ADDITIONAL FIRST GRADE CLASS
June 23, 2014 -- At this past Thursday’s North Shore Board of Education meeting, about two dozen parents of current Sea Cliff Elementary School kindergartners turned out to urge the Superintendent and School Board to create an additional first grade class for next school year.
Parent Kathy Reynolds, reading from a prepared statement and presenting a petition signed by 65 kindergarten parents, requested that the Superintendent grant an exemption from the “51 student rule” and that the “appropriateness of the rule be reviewed in light of the sea change that has occurred as a result of the introduction of the Common Core Learning Standards.” According to the unwritten rule, an additional section is not created until average class-size within the same elementary grade exceeds 25 students. Currently, there are two kindergarten sections, one with 23 students and a second with 24.
Ms. Reynolds stated that an unusually high rate of “behavioral issues, distractibility, lack of focus, withdrawal, lack of attendance to task, and even regression” have plagued this year’s kindergarten classes . Overburdened teachers, she continued, have had difficulty addressing the individual needs of students. The introduction of the Common Core learning standards, which has significantly impacted the Kindergarten and first grade curriculum has created additional challenges necessitating a reduction in class size. “Since New York State is not changing the Common Core,” she said, “we need to change that which is within our control.”
Ms. Reynolds also pointed out the lack of equity in next year’s first grade class sizes from one elementary school to another. At Glen Head, a third class was recently created, and the sizes there as of now will be 17, 17, and 18 – compared to 23 and 24 at Sea Cliff.
Citing two extensive studies on the impact of class-size on student outcomes, Ms. Reynolds stated that lower class-size leads to, among other positive outcomes, higher engagement in subsequent grades, and to less spending on remediation services later on.
After concluding her statement, Ms. Reynolds asked members of the audience who had children in the current Sea Cliff Kindergarten to stand up. More than 20 did so, and several stepped up to the microphone to address the Superintendent and School Board. Parents emphasized the challenges created by the common core curriculum, the behavioral issues among this particular group, and how large class-size hindered teachers' ability to address the individual needs of very young students.
In response, Schools Superintendent Dr. Ed Melnick explained that district-wide there are currently 52 elementary sections and the break-down with regard to class size is as follows: 32 classes have 20-26 students; 14 have 18 or 19; four have 17; and, two have 16. Information was not provided regarding the specific class sizes for each grade level or a more specific breakdown of classes in the 20 to 26 student range. The “51 rule,” he said, was not written anywhere, and that the determination to create another section was dependent on the needs of the children within the group. Under the provisions of the teacher’s contract, he continued, a teacher can ask for an aide if the class reaches 25. Nonetheless, he said, the district would consider having an aide, or perhaps even a Teaching Assistant who would be a certified teacher, in the non-Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom. ICT classes have two teachers – a regular education and a special education teacher.
A consideration that made it less likely that a third section would be created, he explained, was that if the Sea Cliff classes were split up into three, then, in order to achieve equity among elementary classes at all grade levels, six or seven other sections district-wide would possibly have to be split as well.
Addressing a question regarding the addition of a 4th grade section at Glenwood Landing school this past year, Dr. Melnick replied that that occurred because of behavioral issues within that particular grade, and that the extra class was created by eliminating a section in one of the lower grades. Later, Dr. Melnick said, according to what other Superintendents have told him, some nearby districts have 25 to 27 students in their Kindergarten classes.
The School Board then weighed in on the issue.
Trustee Toni Labbate said she was inclined to stick with the “51 rule” but that a decision shouldn’t be made until the board had more information regarding the specific behavioral issues, class dynamics, and individual needs of the students in the grade.
Trustee Michael Nightingale, citing costs, suggested that raising class sizes at the high school level to perhaps as high as 30 was a possible consideration, in order to reduce class-size in the early elementary grades.
Trustee Maryanne Russo stated that she liked Dr. Melnick’s idea of putting an aide in the classroom. She said her son had 23 students in his first grade class with an aide, and she believed that was effective. “That worked out well for them and he is in high school and he is reading and all is good,” she said. Trustee Russo continued that she did not think class sizes could be increased at the high school because of limited space within the classroom. Dr. Melnick agreed, and added that when there are 30 students in a high school English class, it would be difficult for the teacher to grade the essays of five sections.
Both Trustees Sara Jones and Amy Beyer asked Dr. Melnick to provide the board with a break-down of what the class sizes were for each grade at the elementary level. Trustee Beyer stated that in the past the board had gotten a break- down of class size for K-2 and 3-5. Dr. Melnick stated that it was the aim of the district to have lower class sizes in the early grades than the upper elementary grades. However, he continued, it creates a problem later on if parents are accustomed to lower class-size in k-2 and then sections are eliminated and class sizes rise in grades 3-5.
During the second round of public comment, parents once again spoke out, reiterating that the current make-up of the classes as well the needs of the individual students in this particular cohort, in addition to the demands of the new Common Core learning standards, warranted the creation of another class. In response to Dr. Melnick’s consideration of placing an aide or teaching assistant in the non-ICT class, Ms. Reynolds, while appreciative of the gesture, said that the “first consideration is class-size – class-size matters.”
How to pay for an additional Kindergarten section had been raised earlier in the meeting. A resident pointed out that, according to the meeting agenda, the board would be voting to put approximately $2.2 million in unexpended funds from this year’s budget into various reserves and towards the unassigned fund balance, and asked whether any of that could go towards paying for an additional section. Dr. Melnick replied that he was unsure if those monies could be used in that way and that that would have to be looked at by legal counsel. Later he explained that if fund balance were used to pay for a new section, it would be difficult to fund the additional section the following year, since the amount allocated towards the teaching position would not be included in calculations for the following year’s tax cap. It would thereby create a cycle in which fund balance would always have to be depleted to pay for that expense.
Two months ago, at the April 3rd Budget Adoption meeting, after the board had just voted to use a just realized increase of $200,000 in state aid to further reduce the tax levy below the state imposed tax cap, the same resident asked what class sizes looked like for next year, and wondered whether that $200,000 could have been better used, if necessary, to reduce them. The Superintendent explained where class-sizes were in the lower grades at that particular time and said that if the district needed to create an additional section, it would use the fund balance. "That's one of the reasons why you end up with fund balance," he said, "because if we end up having to split a section and I need to go to three, then I need to be prepared for that."
In the 2014-15 budget adopted by the School Board in April and approved by voters in May, one teaching position at Sea Cliff was eliminated in a spending plan that represents a 1.98% increase over this year and a tax levy increase of 1.5% - $319,000 dollars below the tax cap established by New York State.
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