With just days to go before the school bell rings, class sizes for some of Katonah-Lewisboro’s youngest students can seem as unsettled as summer’s weather.
Buffeted by a dramatic drop in enrollment, administration officials are finding their classroom forecasts, especially for the district’s four elementary schools, tough to keep pinned down. Class sizes at in South Salem, for example, seemingly fixed in late June, were still subject to the winds of change as late as August, prompting unrest among at least some parents.
At a school board meeting last week, three mothers expressed separate but similar concerns over what one of them described as “willy-nilly” juggling of class sizes in response to swings in enrollment projections.
Katonah-Lewisboro’s student population has from an all-time high of 4,100 to about 3,500 today. The district’s four elementary schools expect to see 46 fewer students come next month, raising myriad challenges in determining sections and class size.
As Alice Cronin, the assistant superintendent for instruction, “There’s a couple of things each year I don’t really enjoy talking about, and the elementary enrollments are pretty high up there.”
Nowhere is enrollment volatility felt more acutely than in the smallest of the schools, Meadow Pond. The district had projected 49 kindergarteners at the school and expected to accommodate them in three half-day sections of 16 or 17. But by midsummer, enrollment stood at just 39, allowing a shift to two sections of 19 and 20 and saving the equivalent of half a teacher.
The mothers at last week’s meeting focused on Meadow Pond’s second grade. Last year, by their count it had two sections, each with 23 or 24 students, while youngsters a year behind them, in first-grade, gathered in three sections of just 15 or 16. But those former first-graders were ticketed for schooling this year in two sections, forcing class sizes of 23 or 24 and repeating last year’s second-grade template. That changed just this month, when the school board voted to add a section for second grade, retaining the first-grade class sizes of 15 or 16.
“Everyone wants smaller class sizes,” one of last week’s speakers, Carolyn Kirby, said in a telephone interview over the weekend. “It’s great that they have that. It just doesn’t seem equitable."
Moreover, said Martha Goodman, that kind of “willy-nilly” determination of acceptable class size “is how we ended up at Meadow Pond last year with a fourth grade of 50 students in three sections and a fifth grade of 51 students in two sections.” Reading from a letter (posted with this story) she and her husband, John, wrote to the board, Goodman said, “One group learns in classes of 16-17 while the other group learns in classes of 25-26. This is also how we ended up in the same year with fourth-grade classes of 16-17 and second-grade classes of 23-24.”
Goodman argued that by not adopting a concrete policy on class size, the board left itself open to charges of “playing favorites, or bowing to pressure from the most vocal parent group.”
She pointed specifically to a reduction last month in class size for Meadow Pond’s second grade, a change that occurred after Marjorie Schiff, the mother of an incoming second-grader, took her seat on the board. “While there may in fact be no impropriety,” Goodman told the board, “your ad hoc approach makes it impossible to tell.”
Schiff, elected to the board in May and sworn in last month, later defended her vote on the class-size reduction, saying that district officials had recommended the section change and that she supported it. Schiff said she would “welcome a conversation” about class sizes.
But Jennifer Weis, the mother of three students, including a Meadow Pond third-grader, dismissed the district’s ongoing debate over the size issue as “ridiculous,” saying, “We’ve had this discussion for nine years.”
“We have an expenditure of $31,000 per pupil,” she reminded the board members. “That’s like one of the highest in the nation. . . . Why are we even arguing about this?”
Weis said her sister teaches in the Danbury, CT, school system, where the annual per-pupil outlay “is in the teens—and she has 19 children in her third-grade class and less in her second-grade class.”
Carolyn Kirby, in the phone interview, emphasized that nobody begrudges the new second-graders their smaller class sizes. But she wondered whether the extra money found for their additional section might have been better spent elsewhere. “We’re just saying, if it [the larger class size] was OK for us, it’s probably OK for them and maybe resources . . . would be better-placed elsewhere. . . . Maybe an extra body floating through our building for core classes would be helpful.”