Carlisle Area School District officials will study the feasibility of installing modular classroom units at Mooreland Elementary School to ease parental concerns of overcrowding.
“We’re going to be scheduling meetings in upcoming weeks,” acting Superintendent Christina Spielbauer said. “At first, it’s going to be the administrative team looking at it.”
Depending on their findings, a recommendation may go before the school board property committee and possibly to the board as a whole, which has the final say.
Parents of fourth-graders enrolled at Mooreland have suggested the use of modular units as one solution until the district could expand and renovate the school located at 329 Wilson St. in Carlisle.
Modular units are a good option to provide space for “specials” such as the art room, music room or computer lab, said Becky Hoffman, whose daughter attends Mooreland. She would prefer to keep the regular classrooms integrated within the building.
Large class sizes in the two sections of the fourth-grade prompted the district early in the school year to hire a third teacher and to increase the number of hours available to instructional aides, Spielbauer said.
She said a portion of the students from each of the two main classrooms are sent to the third teacher, who has a classroom to provide students with instruction primarily in math and language arts. Beyond that, the third teacher alternates between the two main classrooms to provide small group instruction and other support.
“They took away the music classroom,” PTO Vice President Melinda Schildt said of the district. “The music teacher goes around on a cart.” Her daughter is in the fourth grade at Mooreland.
“They have put the renovation off twice,” Schildt said. “The building was supposed to be expanded and renovated. None of that has happened and it has been over eight years now. They have put it off with no definitive date.”
Though easier to install than performing new construction, modular units would require a permit and an adequate amount of level ground on the campus, Spielbauer said. “It does take a decent amount of time to put units into place if that is the route the district believes is in the best interest to go.”
The recent completion of the Hamilton Elementary School project clears the way for district officials to have stepped-up talks over a project at Mooreland, Spielbauer said. “It has been on the radar for a while. We are in the initial stages.” She did not know when construction could begin.
Back to school
Christian Muniz became aware of the overcrowding problem at back-to-school night early in the year. At the time, his daughter was one of 29 students enrolled in a fourth-grade class. The other section had a similar number of children.
“There was a collective gasp among parents,” recalled Muniz, who was concerned about the greater amount of distractions and less one-on-one time that goes with larger class sizes. His daughter feels lost within such a large group.
“I want to emphasize my great respect for the teachers,” Muniz said. “Though the years I have sent them emails and copied the principal thanking them for the great job. I know their hands are somewhat tied when it comes to class sizes.”
Large class sizes make it difficult for teachers to teach effectively, Schildt said. “There is a lack of cohesion in the classroom. Students do not learn as well. The kids that get lost in the mix as those that need special attention.”
She said there is definitive research proving that small class sizes result in better learning outcomes and more well-adjusted students. All three parents want the school district and school board to implement an official policy regarding class sizes.
“We don’t have a policy on class size,” Spielbauer said. “Administratively we have a range of what we utilize for class sizes.”
This takes the form of a procedure where building principals notify the central office whenever enrollment in a grade level approaches or exceeds a threshold in the number of students per classroom.
Changes are not automatic. Instead this puts administrators on alert to more closely monitor the classroom conditions and, if deemed appropriate, make adjustments by either hiring more staff or by increasing the amount of instructional aide hours, Spielbauer said. “It gives us more flexibility as a district because not every grade level or situation is exactly the same.”
For kindergarten, first and second grades, the district would prefer class size not to exceed 24 students because children that young need a smaller teacher-student ratio to facilitate instruction on the foundational skills of learning, Spielbauer said.
As third, fourth and fifth grades, the threshold goes up to 28 students per classroom because older students are more able to do things for themselves and to work independently.
In the case of Mooreland, administrators decided early in the year to hire a third fourth-grade teacher and to boost the instructional aide hours. Principal Kim Trunkenmiller was put in charge of selecting which students from the two main classrooms would be sent to the third teacher for math and language arts instruction. Hoffman’s daughter was among those selected.
Hoffman is against the idea, saying it is not the best solution to the problem of overcrowding. Her daughter feels as though she is missing out from what the main class is doing and worries that her peers are working on something different.
“There is no cohesiveness now,” said Hoffman, adding that her daughter has been with the same children the whole time.
“All three teachers work very closely with one another,” Spielbauer said. “The principal, teachers and the counselor will provide support to the students to make sure there is a very smooth transition.”
Muniz wants the school board as part of its budget process to deem low class sizes a priority and to allocate money, perhaps from reserves, into a contingency fund that specifically addresses overcrowding not just at Mooreland, but at other schools within the district.
“I know they walk a fine line,” said Muniz, referring to how board members contend with the unpredictable costs of pension and health care along with reductions in state education subsidies. But school district budgets are all about setting and defining priorities and small class sizes should be a part of that thinking, Muniz said.
Spielbauer said the district almost every year sets aside enough money to hire one to two new teachers to address overcrowding issues that sometime surface in the fall.
As a rule, Carlisle estimates the cost of each teacher at between $75,000 and $80,000 including salary, benefits and the district’s contribution to the state retirement system, Spielbauer said.
This year, one of the new hires was the third fourth-grade teacher at Mooreland while the other new hire was an additional kindergarten teacher at Crestview Elementary School.
The Crestview teacher became necessary when 15 new students showed up without prior notice the first day of school, Spielbauer said. She said kindergarten is the hardest grade level for school districts to project enrollment.