Teachers shifted to keep class size funding

Published 11:37 pm Wednesday, October 5, 2011

When Kaed Hartman started kindergarten at Florence Bowser Elementary School last month, he went through the usual adjustments — he made a gaggle of new friends, got accustomed to his new classroom and got to know his teacher.

Now, the 5-year-old is going to have to do it all over again when his teacher leaves Florence Bowser to go to another Suffolk school today.

“Every child in that class has developed an attachment to her,” said Kaed’s mother Kristen Outlaw-Hartman. “Now, they are looking at quite a loss.”

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With his first teacher gone, Kaed and about 17 other kindergarteners are being moved to another of Florence Bowser’s three remaining kindergarten classes.

“I was really quite upset, because 18 students is what is in each class in kindergarten at Florence Bowser,” Outlaw-Hartman said.

She said each class now will have 24 students, which is the cap at the school, and she worries the larger class sizes are not good for the children.

Kaed’s teacher’s move is part of a division-wide transfer affecting eight schools. The aim is to reduce teacher-student ratios throughout Suffolk.

Superintendent Deran Whitney said the shift happens every year, when student populations are evaluated after the 10th day of school.

“We receive funding for the state regarding class size (in kindergarten through third grade),” he said. “It’s a program the state has had for years.”

Through the K3 Class Size Reduction initiative, Virginia gives money to public school divisions that keep their teacher-student ratios at a certain level at each school in kindergarten through third grades.

This year, Suffolk Public Schools received $1.4 million through the program.

Whitney said the cap is determined by the percentage of students that receive free or reduced-price lunches at the schools. Schools with higher percentages have lower caps.

“What we have to do is determine around the 10th day of school how many classes are over their cap and how many are under,” he said. “Because we want to receive this funding, we want to comply.”

New classes are formed at schools that are over the limit.

Whitney said the division always looks first to hire new teachers, but there aren’t always new positions in the budget.

“Considering this is a tight budget year, we had maybe four new teachers in our budget,” he said. “Those positions are no longer available, because we have filled them.”

As a result, the division must shift teachers from schools under the class size cap to schools that are over.

Volunteers are sought out first, but if no one volunteers, then the teacher that was hired most recently is the one that moves, he said.

Also, teachers can move from fourth or fifth grade to teach lower grades at the same school.

This year, 11 teachers are affected by the moves, including the Florence Bowser teacher.

Hillpoint Elementary School is one of the schools that needed extra teachers. Principal Ronald Leigh said the second grade was averaging 29 students in each class, and the third grade had 25 students in every class. Both averages are above the school’s cap of 24.

“We have to add another teacher to get those numbers down,” Leigh said. “You’d walk into those classrooms, and there was just so many kids.”

With the transfers in place, the class averages are at 23.4 students, he said.

Whitney said when these transfers take place, parents are naturally unsure and upset.

“I don’t think any parent likes the idea of losing their teacher after 10 or 15 days,” he said. “But the teacher might be needed somewhere else.”

Whitney said the schools work hard to ensure the transfers go smoothly for students, teachers and parents.

All of the affected students and their parents are invited to meet the new teacher for orientations at each school, he said, and often the new teachers spend time in the classrooms before they officially start.

“What really helps is the support of the parents and the staff embracing the idea that this is something that needs to happen based on the needs,” he said. “It’s not something we look forward to doing, but it’s something we’ve done in the past, and it’s worked.”