Three months into a school year with record-high enrollment, parents at Ames School in Riverside called on the District 96 school board at their Nov. 27 meeting to take action to reduce the overcrowding at the school, with some presenting their own detailed solutions to the problem.
Enrollment in District 96 has steadily grown for the past few years, but of the four neighborhood elementary schools, Ames has seen by far the greatest increases in its student body. According to enrollment information compiled by Ames parent Mary Stimming, between 2000-01 and 2007-08 enrollment at Ames climbed 81 percent, from 166 to 301 students. In comparison, enrollment grew only 26 percent at Central School, and a mere 2 percent at Hollywood School. Blythe Park School’s student body actually decreased 30 percent during that period.
The high numbers at Ames means the school, originally built to hold two classroom sections for each grade level, now has three sections of kindergarten and first, second and third grades. The district’s enrollment projections show that the high numbers should be short lived, with dramatic decreases expected as soon as the 2010-11 school year.
But for now, finding space for every class has been a challenge. In a separate interview, Principal Colleen Lieggi said this year the building has reached its limit, with classrooms subdivided to fit extra sections and office space being used to make room for small group work.
“We’ve had to be creative and think outside the box,” Lieggi said. “It’s been tricky. … We’re using our multipurpose room, my office is used, our conference room and library are used. Some classrooms have large coat closets; those are being used, too.
Lieggi also noted that in addition to the growing enrollment, Ames also has higher percentages of special needs students than most other schools in the district. The percentage of students learning English as a second language at Ames is 4.6 percent, almost twice the district average of 2.4 percent.
In addition, Ames’ mobility rate, the number of students who enter or leave the school mid-year, is 8.2 percent, compared to the district average of 4.7 percent. Lieggi said both groups require extra attention to adjust to the school and curriculum.
The situation at Ames has not affected the school’s standardized test results, however. Students have maintained high pass rates on the tests, with some grade levels seeing large gains in recent years.
For example, the number of students meeting or exceeding standards in fifth grade math has gone from 84 percent in 2004 to 100 percent in 2007. Lieggi called the results “remarkable.”
Making sure the school keeps performing at this level was the goal of the Ames parents who spoke at last week’s board meeting. Stimming, who has three children at Ames, presented a 23-page proposal to the board that she had developed along with other Ames parents. Their main proposal was for the number of sections per grade level at Central School to be increased from three to four for the 2008-09 school year. This would absorb the overflow at Ames, which would be limited to a two-section school.
The proposal also suggests shuffling kindergarten sections among the four elementary schools, as well as ending the popular kindergarten enrichment program. In a phone interview, Stimming said she realized some elements of the proposal are controversial, but hoped it would spark conversation in the community.
“[It’s] a starting point of conversation,” she said. “We’re saying we should look at all our options and discuss their strengths and weaknesses.”
In addition to Stimming’s proposal, members of the Ames Parent Teacher Association spoke in favor of renting mobile units to create extra classroom space until the enrollment drops in two years. PTA Co-Presidents Brooke Schwarz and Stephanie Schulte both argued a mobile classroom would be an appropriate and economical short-term solution. Schwarz said it would be preferable to converting the school’s multipurpose room to classroom space and the gym into a makeshift lunchroom, as has been proposed by administrators.
“It would keep the school intact and have teachers teaching and children learning in real classrooms,” she said.
School board members and administrators welcomed the proposals from the Ames parents at the meeting, but indicated that many more discussions would have to be had before such decisions could be made. Board President Cheryl Berdelle stressed that the board would have to collect as much information as possible before increasing classroom space at any school, through mobile units or otherwise.
“When making a decision, I want to know what’s generating it. Will the kids learn better, faster, smarter, quicker?” Berdelle said. “If I see that the kids are still learning better, faster, smarter in the classrooms we have now, it’s going to be hard to convince me to spend more money on another classroom.”
School Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson said any action taken to reduce overcrowding at Ames would also have to consider the implications the enrollment growth will have on Hauser Junior High. As the district’s hub for sixth through eighth grades, Lamberson said Hauser will have the longest period of growth of all the district’s five schools, and, like Ames, is already essentially at capacity.
In fact, he said, the Central classrooms Stimming’s proposal suggested should be used to house Ames’ extra sections have already been eyed as potential rooms for spillover from Hauser.
“The population is increasing simply by attrition,” he said. “We’re getting close to the point of scheduling where we do not have any square footage left.”