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Classroom squeeze

Class sizes would be addressed with referendum

By Ben Rodgers
Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series that examines the proposed referendum for the Howard-Suamico School District. This article looks at classroom sizes across the district and the impacts.

SUAMICO – Growing class sizes for the Howard-Suamico School District is one major area of concern the proposed referendum on April 3 will attempt to address.

“Our class size ratios are a concern, especially for our district in our attempt to personalize learning for all of the students,” said Mark Smith, assistant superintendent of learning. “There are certain buildings and certain class sizes where it’s more of a concern than others. Regardless, it’s the district’s goal that every teacher knows each child by name and need.”

To put things in perspective, a recent study by the nonpartisan group the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance ranked the HSSD at 403 out of 422 for class sizes. This puts the district in the bottom five percent when it comes to crowded classrooms.

Pinpointing the problem areas can be difficult in a school district, but having a class with 28-30 students has become the norm for many educators.

The proposed referendum to allow the district to exceed the revenue cap by $5.85 million over five years will address the class size problem by hiring more teachers.

The most recent student count for the district shows 6,168 students, with only 358 teachers, Smith said.

Students are hard at work in Nikki Ely’s second grade classroom at Forest Glen Elementary School on Thursday, March 1. Ben Rodgers Photo

By hiring 30 new teachers over two years the district will be closer to its goal of roughly 22 to 24 students per classroom.

For example a high school teacher with 30 students per class, who teaches six classes a day, would have 180 students, each with different needs that require specialized approaches, Smith said.

“Each individual student has unique learning needs,” he said. “When a teacher is able to diagnose that, then they are able to, with precision, meet the learning gap for that individual around a topic or learning area.”

Currently fifth and sixth grade have high numbers. Some required high school classes have 30 or more students, according to Smith.

“From a philosophical commitment, the more we can create the conditions for personalized learning at a younger level, the more confidence we will have that we have the foundation skills developed in those students to ascend through the system,” he said.

However, throwing teachers in mass at the problem won’t necessarily fix it, Smith said.

He and a team of administrators are looking at movement in and out of the district, enrollment numbers and changes in the district’s open enrollment policy.

They hope to create a blueprint that details the different levels educators are needed at.

“We are triangulating data to be able to identify projected enrollment and projected staffing needs,” he said.

The other challenge in filling the need is hiring the right type of teacher.

“We want to hire the best educators,” Smith said. “We will not settle for a subpar educator simply to lower class sizes. We believe we have a great product to sell. We believe teachers want to come to the Howard-Suamico School District. A successful referendum affirms that I believe for educators.”

One such educator is Chad McAlister, a high school social studies teacher.

McAlister is a 1990 Bay Port graduate, who came back to teach at his alma mater.

Chad McAlister, Bay Port social studies teacher, discusses class sizes in his classroom. Ben Rodgers Photo

“It was less crowded,” McAlister said of high school in 1990. “We were at the old building yet and the school was much, much smaller. Our graduating classes were much, much smaller. I think there was maybe 250 in my class when we graduated. Very different than it is now.”

Graduating classes now are closer to 450, which again means some class sizes are close to 30 students.

“At 28 to 30 kids it’s picking the middle of the road and that’s where you’re hitting, and you’re going to miss the ones that are advanced from that, and those that are below that, because there’s not enough time in a day to meet the kids and see what their needs are,” McAlister said.

He is currently in his 20th year of teaching at Bay Port and chairs the social studies department.

But with high class numbers he finds himself getting frustrated at what are his limitations as an educator.

“I really like the idea of personalized education,” McAlister said. “I haven’t done it to the extent I want to do it because I haven’t figured out the management aspect of it, how to do this with so many kids.”

This means less opportunity to learn the skills required after graduation, he said.

“We know what’s best, we knows what’s good for kids. We know what business leaders and post-secondary educators want us to do, and yet we can’t do it the way we want to, or do it well,” McAlister said.

With smaller classes McAlister would like to have more writing assignments and work closer with each student.

It’s also common sense, but less students in a class equals less disciplinary issues.

Adam Schense teaches his freshman world history class at Bay Port High School on Thursday, March 1. Ben Rodgers Photo

“If we had more teachers we’d be able to very much decrease our class sizes which would then give us time during our class periods to do more one-on-one class time with students, and conference with students,” he said.
McAlister also sat on the community task force that reviewed the referendum problem and came up with possible solutions.

“I think I had an impact on some people,” he said. “I don’t think everybody realizes what we actually do day-to-day with kids and that’s because they’re not in education. So their frame of reference was when they were in school.”

The proposed referendum question will be on the April 3 ballot.

Read The Press next week for the third part of the series that looks at the need to increase teacher compensation.

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