In a sharp break from past practice, the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education decided last month to override its class size policy, allowing 20 students to attend their neighborhood elementary schools instead of being sent to others in the district.
In doing so the board followed the recommendation of Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis and her leadership team. The district has a policy setting a class-size maximum of 20 students in kindergarten through third grade and 23 students in fourth and fifth grades.
With the policy override approved on Aug. 20, eight students will be able to attend Hollywood School instead of being assigned to other schools, and six each from Ames School and Blythe Park School will be able to go to those schools instead of being sent elsewhere.
Under former Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson, class-size limits for elementary schools were typically closely followed. In most but not all cases, when limits were reached in a grade at one school, students were then assigned to another school with more room in that grade.
The issue had long concerned parents from the Hollywood section of Brookfield, who did not want their children to have to cross First Avenue to go to elementary school. It was less of an issue for parents of other areas in the district, although Ames School historically has had high levels of displacement. Most parents want their children to attend the closest school.
The issue came before the school board on Aug. 20 because Matt Joseph, whose family moved into Hollywood this summer, had asked the school board at its July meeting to discuss the policy.
Joseph asked the board to make an exception to the class-size policy so his daughter could go to kindergarten at Hollywood School where her brother was going to be in third grade. The Hollywood School kindergarten class was already at its class size limit of 20 students.
Instead of ruling on just the one case, the board and new administration decided to override the class-size policy for almost all students new to the district.
Joseph applauded the board’s action.
“As a parent, I’m excited that my kids are going to be able to go school together,” Joseph said.
Joseph said when he met with Hollywood School Principal Mindy Keller in April, he was told that it appeared there would be room for his third-grade son but not for his daughter in kindergarten.
Because of the change in policy, there will now be 23 children in the one kindergarten class at Hollywood School, three more than the previous maximum, according to a District 96 enrollment report. The second- and third-grade classes at Hollywood are also over the class size policy guidelines, with 24 students in each class, while the first-grade class at Hollywood had 22 students on the first day of school.
Thirteen classrooms throughout the district will exceed the class-size guidelines. Seven of those classes are at Ames School, which. Ames has three classes with 25 students, one with 24 and three others with more than 20.
At Blythe Park School two classes have more students than the class-size policy recommends. The third-grade class has 24 kids and the first-grade class has 23 students.
Central School, the largest school in the district, has no classes with more students than the class-size policy aims for.
Sharma-Lewis and the Director of Academic Excellence Brian Ganan told the school board that they were comfortable with the class sizes numbers in the district even though some slightly exceed the policy.
“These are really good class-size numbers,” Sharma-Lewis told the school board. “If you look at neighboring districts, we’re still really low.”
Sharma-Lewis and Ganan said teacher effectiveness is the key to learning and class size matters more in classroom management.
“I wouldn’t say there is a difference between 24 or 26 kids,” Sharma-Lewis said. “I think small classrooms are ideal from a management standpoint, but not from an instructional standpoint.”
Under the override approved last week only two new students, one from Hollywood and one from Blythe Park, will be displaced this year, according to figures provided on Aug. 20.
Board members approved the policy override on a voice vote. Board president Mary Rose Mangia was not at the meeting because she was on a vacation. No one voted no, although some board members, particularly Lisa Gaynor, David Kodama and Rachel Marrello, expressed concern. They said that the board would have to set some kind of limit on class sizes and stick to it.
“Where is the plateau?” Kodama asked.
Gaynor worried about the disparity in class sizes among the four elementary schools.
“Where do we draw the line?” Gaynor asked.
“This is kind of a for-now measure,” Marrello said. “I think we talked about referring it to the policy committee. We need to look at this in the future to come up with definite guidelines of where we’re going to stop.”
Board member Randy Brockway said that he valued keeping students close to home and especially not forcing elementary students to cross First Avenue.
“I think we keep the kids closest to home,” Brockway said.
Art Perry, who before he was elected to the school board in 2011 served on a flexible boundary committee established to examine the issues of displacement, boundaries, enrollment and class size, said that the committee’s work had never really been addressed by the school board.
“Work was done, but I consider it unfinished work,” Perry said. “Hollywood will probably never be able to deal with high enrollment without displacing students, and it’s frustrating for those families.”
Perry said he was thought the override of the current policy was appropriate.
“I think the numbers we’re looking at are not out of the range of what’s already been approved by boards in the past,” Perry said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a huge problem. I’m disappointed that a couple of students will be displaced even under this proposal.”