SUMMIT, NJ - Class size supplanted Full-Day kindergarten (FDK) as the front-and-center topic at the March 14 Board of Education (BOE) meeting, as dozens of parents once again assembled in the Summit High School media center to express concerns about BOE policy and decisions.
The class size conversation began at the March 7 Special Budget meeting, when parents addressed concerns that there would be a reduction of sections at some of the Summit elementary schools. At that meeting, Superintendent of Schools June Chang did not state specifically which school would see larger class sizes in the remaining sections.
In his opening remarks, Chang said that there was a misconception that the inclusion of FDK in the budget had an impact on the plan to have classes with as many as 25 students.
He said that should any section grow to 26 students he would add a section. “This is March,” he said. “We will keep track of who moves in and moves out; by summer if any class is over 25 students we will open a section.”
“I hear you...I hear what everyone’s saying; these decisions are not made on whim,” he said. He said that these numbers are “staying true” to the district’s best practices and policies.
District policy 2312 on class size states:
“The Board of Education directs that the number of pupils assigned to any one class be governed by considerations of instructional quality and economy of operation.
A desired range for the minimum and maximum number of pupils that shall be assigned to regular classes shall be established by the Superintendent.
The Superintendent shall prepare guidelines for class size. Maximum limits shall take into account the subject matter, type of instruction, ability of pupils, availability of aides, and use of special facilities and equipment and may be waived to accommodate the demands of a temporary increase in enrollment.
Class Size Guidelines
The district does not have a formal policy nor negotiated contract language that makes specific reference to class size. The district does have an operational guideline. The class size for primary grades Kindergarten through two shall generally not exceed 22 and in the intermediate grades three through five the class size shall generally not exceed 24.”
Board President Deb McCann said that while there is no policy change, the Board appreciates all the letters it received and wants to hear all concerns, which would be taken into consideration.
“We want input,” she said, so that the Board could “move forward with what’s best for the kids.”
More than 25 parents spoke against having 25 children in a classroom. Their comments focused mostly on the difficulty a teacher would have providing a meaningful education to that many students in one classroom and on safety. Many shared anecdotal evidence of their children’s experiences. Many have careers in education as teachers, consultants, and administrators.
Examples of this resident parent feedback include:
Sarah Bird asked if the BOE really believed that large classes offer “maximum learning potential for each of our children.” “It should be a resounding no,” she said, “We shouldn’t be satisfied with 25 as the magic number for a class.”
She said that 25 students offers less individualized instruction during the “formative elementary-school years.” She said that the needs of children are wide ranging, estimating that, with 25 students in a class, each child would receive fewer than “15 minutes a week” of personal attention. This is a “short-sighted solution."
Clinton Matter said, “An extra seven or eight kids in a class is simply something you cannot ignore. It’s naive to think an extra eight kids won’t change the dynamic,” he said. He said that to ask a teacher to manage a class of this size is a “super-human task.”
Rob Roriston said that nothing says 25 students is an “optimal number.” “You’ve all seen the studies,” he said. He said that adding $1.5 million to the budget for FDK was “misleading and inappropriate” since he said it wasn’t stated that this would mean there would now be 25 students in a class.
Melinda Fleissner asked that the students be looked at individually and not as “numbers.” She said that to teach 25 students at once and to address their needs is “impossible.” “You can only use your resources in so many ways,” she said.
Fleissner also stressed that boys are different from girls. She said that this change means that there will be “16 or 17” boys per class at Brayton School; the grade is made up of 46 boys and 28 girls, she said, adding that, physically, there is no room to put that many desks in the classrooms.
Diane Manahan responded to an earlier comment that Chang had made about elementary school students needing to self-advocate. She said that the sheer size of the class makes it difficult for needs to be met.
She presented photos of her son’s overcrowded classroom, and said that he has “bruised hips from bumping into desks.”
She also stated that her son, who has dyslexia, has “regressed” in his math and reading skills now that he is in a class of 25 students, and is taking up more of the teacher’s time. This, said Manahan, is of concern to the parents of other children in the class.
“All students are not equal,” she said. Increasing a class in size from 17 to 25 students in one year is “unacceptable for any student in this district."
Diane Macina said, “Summit takes a step in the wrong direction each time it closes a section and increases class size.”
“Why is 25 the magic number?” she asked.
Nina Bryant said that her second grader has “completely shut down” this year in a class of 25 students. “My son has turned into a kid who doesn’t have empathy to deal with kids who need extra time; it’s been a really hard transition,” she said. “This has been very troubling.”
Scott Manahan said that we need to “think about the teachers who are trying to control the class.” He said that the District needs to ensure that they don’t get “burned out.”
“We need to consider the teachers’ health and keeping them inspired,” he said.
Kristen Pierotti suggested that there be a formula established to ensure that the same students are not subjected to the largest class sizes for multiple consecutive years.
Elizabeth Tully-Cano, a parent who is a high school counselor in another district, discussed the mental health and social awareness issues of students in these larger classes. “In large groups, they start to shut down,” she said. “As a high school counselor, I am scared.”
Rachel Jacobson has boy / girl twins at Brayton Elementary School and is concerned about gender parity. She said that, even at this “young age,” girls don’t feel that they have the same opportunities. She said that these larger classes are “setting them up for failure.”
She also commented on the safety concerns of that many children in a classroom. She said that her child said they are not able to navigate the room with so many desks. She said that her child asked, if there was ever a shooting, “Are we going to get out?”
“That broke my heart,” she said.
Michelle White and Julia Connelly both also addressed how children would “get out” if there was a safety concern. “When you are doing a lockdown drill you look at all their little faces, and it runs through the course of your mind how all these children will get out,” White said.
Connelly said that, at Jefferson School, when inclusion students join with regular education students for 'specials' -- such as art, music and gym -- the class size rises to as many as 29 or 30 students and it is “total chaos.”
“This cannot continue,” she said. “We are really at a disadvantage and something has to be addressed.”
Carlos Borrero, a Jefferson parent who is a New York City high school principal, said that the teachers who teach the 'specials' “have to be treated with the same dignity” as the regular classroom teachers.
“This is not a dumping ground,” he said.
Chang said that there are 77 sections total across the five elementary schools, and that seven of them have classes at 23 to 25 students. “These are the outliers,” he said. “We typically don’t go up to that.”
Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe said that there had also been classes with as many as 25 students under the former superintendent Nathan Parker.
Chang said, “Twenty-five is the threshold of what I think is acceptable.”
Donna Miller, chair of the communications committee, said that the Board is “desirous of being a reliable source” for news and information She said that over the past decade, the abundance of social media makes that difficult and, while people want information fast, they are getting the information -- at times incorrect information -- from social media posts and comments.
The District does maintain its own social media pages, which is part of a strategy to drive people back to the District's website for further information.
Miller said the committee’s goal is to figure out how to “best engage and inform the overlapping school community and the community-at-large so they feel they are getting information that is factual and not from Facebook.".
McCann said that she looked to see what the Chatham, Madison, and New Providence Disricts were posting on social media. “Guess what, I didn’t find anything,” she said, “We’re ahead of the curve.”
Miller said, “If it’s not on our website, it might not be true.”
Policy Chair Peggy Wong discussed updated policies on opiate antidotes, transgender students, and alcohol testing for commercial drivers.
In the only public comment on FDK, Former City Councilman Tom Getzendanner said,” The BOE’s request for a 2.6 percent tax increase is tone deaf, completely out of step with new circumstances. At least the vote last week was not unanimous. Political slogans and glib campaign promises should not dictate school funding policy. Appointed boards are supposedly just as accountable to taxpayers as duly elected boards. Ideology and morality don’t belong in the equation.”