The deadline is looming to come up with solutions for Kalispell’s overcrowded classrooms. The problem starts at the entry level, Kindergarten, where classrooms across the district are filled beyond accreditation standards.
State accreditation standards call for no more than 20 students in a Kindergarten classroom, “when you get to be over 20, you’re definitely doing crowd management most of the time,” Peterson Elementary School Kindergarten teacher Kristi Sanders has 24 kids in her classroom, down from 25.
“You want to- just practice vocabulary with them, you want to hear about their day, you want to hear about their experience, about their background knowledge. But, really they have to do a lot more sitting and listening when you have 25 because obviously they can’t all speak at the same time,” Sander said.
She is part of a committee of the Kalispell School Districts 18 Kindergarten teachers who met in the fall to come up with some short-term strategies to handle the increasing number of students coming into Kindergarten, “we really brainstormed these short-term solutions, things that we thought we might live with,” Sanders said, “then we voted, we got to vote for our top three choices. And actually, one of the choices that we talked about was doing nothing, and zero out of 18 voted for that.”
The short-term solutions the District is looking at include adding three additional primary school classrooms at the old Alternative High School building. Currently this building houses the districts print shop and receiving departments. Scaling back to half-day Kindergarten, a four-day week, and bringing in additional teachers’ aides are other short-term options being considered. But these solutions are only a stop-gap to cover the next school year.
“We really know that we’re going to need a school, eventually, and I think that’s going to become very obvious to the whole community,” Sanders said.
The District has been reaching out to the community through public meetings that break out into brainstorming sessions. At a recent one at Edgerton Elementary School Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn charted the current enrollment numbers, and projections into the future. Since 2002 Kalispell’s Kindergarten through 5th grade classes have grown just under three percent. Currently Kalispell has about 1,900 students in Kindergarten through 5th grade classes. The District projects that number will grow to more than 2,100 students in ten years.
Zorn said schools across Kalispell have converted existing space to accommodate more class space. For example; at Hedges Elementary the old science lab is now a classroom.
“The music room at Russell School is on the stage, is a reconverted stage, as is the music room at Peterson. And actually, the one at Peterson its actually about, gosh, I want to say it’s about 300 square feet tops,” Zorn said.
Zorn said they can’t simply hire more teachers to handle the greater number of students.
“I think space is a huge issue for us because, even if we were able to secure the funding for that additional staff we don’t know where we’d put ‘em,” Zorn said.
The District is considering asking for a levy to cover the costs of bringing on assistants and more teachers. Zorn said no one loves any of the short-term solutions, “they really are band aid approaches to a long term solution,” Zorn said, “getting to a long term solution for us where we can actually get the space needed to be able to get our class sizes where they need to be to stay within state accreditation standards.”
Zorn said they’re not in immediate danger of losing accreditation, but they don’t want to get to a point where they’re exceeding student-to-teacher ratio standards year after year.
“I just want my daughter to love school,” Sanders said.
Peterson Kindergarten teacher Kristi Sanders is also the mother of two young children in the Kalispell school system. Her son is in first grade, her daughter starting Kindergarten in a couple of years. She said she’s less concerned about academics as she is about the entire experience.
“What I worry about is them loving school and starting out their whole academic career in a positive way. I want them to want to keep going beyond 12th grade, I want them to be college and masters students, and I just really think that starts when they begin,” Sanders said.
District administrators will make recommendations to the school board about short term solutions at its Tuesday night meeting, March 13th. For Long term solutions administrators are looking at whether building additional classroom space will suffice, or if a whole new elementary school is in Kalispell’s future.