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Pencils, paper and parents
Oversized classes mean community help for local schools
By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter
Last year, in between working as a consultant, Scott Milburn, 51, spent a lot of time in kindergarten. Crouching beside child-sized desks, the Island parent gladly volunteered to cut construction paper for art projects, pass around math worksheets and help 5-year-olds sound out big words.
And he wasn’t the only one. Next door, down the hall, outside in the portables, Lakeridge elementary had volunteers in nearly every class. As did West Mercer and Island Park.
Like several of his friends, Milburn is a Room Parent, a PTA-organized volunteer program where parents sign up to assist teachers in the classroom.
This year, the program is already in full swing.
According to Rhonda Glass, the Room Parent coordinator for Lakeridge, every teacher already has at least one Room Parent scheduled through fall.
“We never have trouble finding volunteers,” she said. “During our orientation, teachers write down the hours they need and then the room parents fill those slots.”
Glass has been a Room Parent for six years and said the program has been around for as long as she can remember. With class sizes topping 20 students, teachers welcome all the help they can get, she added.
Minimizing class size has become a burgeoning priority for the district. The School Board is especially concerned about Mercer Island High School, which saw an increase of 50 students this year.
“I hear it everywhere — ‘High school classes are overflowing. Kids aren’t learning to write,’” vice president Adair Dingle said at the Board’s Aug. 9 meeting.
Board member Lisa Eggers, who has two sons in the district, agreed. “I hear elementary school parents complain about class size and I think, ‘Wait until your kid has a class of 32 at the high school,” she said.
Enrollment at Islander Middle School is down by 28 students this year. The Island’s three elementary schools, when averaged, are slightly above the status quo.
But for most parents and teachers, these fluctuating statistics don’t strike the issue at heart: An oversized class is an oversized class.
“Ideally, we shouldn’t have to have parents coming in. Our taxes should cover this,” Milburn said. “Our teachers are overwhelmed. In grade one at Lakeridge, they’ve got five classes of 24 when they could have six classes of 20.”
City Council candidate Mike Cero is one of the Island’s strongest proponents for small classes. When the topic comes up, the father of three doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind. And he’s done his homework too.
Students at MIHS will spend 20 percent of their day in classrooms of 30 or greater for core subjects, Cero said.
“These classes — math, English, science, history — are important courses that a child needs for fulfillment and personal satisfaction. That’s why class size is so important,” he explained.
Most studies on effective class size tend to focus on low-income, minority schools, Cero pointed out, which makes the results difficult to compare with Mercer Island’s more affluent district. Therefore, the former PTA member found Project STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Ratio), a Tennessee study that examined a cross-section of schools.
“This study shows that [students in] affluent schools will gain significantly from smaller classes,” he said. “It shows statistical improvements not only in tangible, but also intangible qualities that measure education and student fulfillment.”
Meanwhile, the district’s Class Size Committee — a cross-section of teachers, administrators, parents and the community — is conducting its own research. The study, which will be presented to the School Board in February 2008, focuses on the benefits of small classes, the history and status of class size on Mercer Island, problems created by oversized classes and the effect on teachers and students.
The committee is currently in the final stages of the project, examining reasonable solutions. Since March, the group has been working with associate superintendent for business services, Liz Dodd, to find a fiscally possible solution. But with a budget already stretched thin and limited facility space for extra teachers, there is no easy answer.
“We can’t add more teachers right now, because this creates a disruption at the school. We need to have facility space for this and we don’t,” said Dodd, pointing out that the student-to-teacher ratio on Mercer Island is much smaller than in neighboring districts. “Adding more elementary school teachers would mean displacing kids from another school, which doesn’t make sense.”
For the most part, parents and teachers understand this.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Cero agreed. “It’s going to take the will to allocate limited resources and experiment with innovative ideas.”
“Islanders have to help Islanders,” he added. “[The funds] are not going to come from Olympia. ”
Meanwhile, the district continues to rely on paraprofessionals and volunteers to pull the extra weight. This is why the Room Parent program is such a gem.
“They are so much help,” said Lakeridge kindergarten teacher Marcelle Waldman. “They’re willing to do anything, whether it’s gluing art projects or cutting out paper, so we don’t have to be here late at night doing it.”
Waldman said she’s thankful that, this year, her class is down to 20 children. Last year she had 24. With a class that big, Waldman pointed out, it’s almost impossible to reach each individual child.
“When you have 24 kids you do the best job you can, but you simply can’t get to each student,” the kindergarten teacher said. “And all children need that one-on-one time, whether it’s for praise, extra help or discipline issues — anything.”
All three elementary schools on the Island use the Room Parent system. Since the program is based on teacher needs, some classes have more helpers than others, Glass said. In addition, each elementary school has between 15 and 20 paid paraprofessionals assisting teachers and students.
So far, the Room Parent program hasn’t expanded to the middle and high school level, which makes sense, considering that most adults barely remember calculus. Even if they do, how many 16-year-olds really want dad helping them in second-period math? As for 6-year-olds, that’s another situation.
“Children love seeing their parents in the class,” said Glass. “For the younger ones especially, it’s really exciting to have mom or dad there.”