Knapp Elementary parents expressed their concerns to the North Penn School Board Education/Community/Policy Committee meeting Monday night over a possible decision to push sixth grade modular classroom sizes at the school to as many as 29 students, the maximum allowed by state guidelines, in the upcoming school year.

Concerned parents are expected to comment on the possible overcrowding issue at Tuesday night’s North Penn School Board session, the last session before the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Within the past two years, Knapp Elementary has taken away one of the sixth-grade classrooms because of the amount of students enrolled in the class. At present, there are three sixth-grade classes at Knapp in the modular units. Modular classrooms are smaller than the standard classrooms.

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“In the past, they've had four classrooms, and they collapsed one as of now. They still continue to look at the numbers. As of right now, they collapsed one, so our numbers are pushing 28 to 30 students per classroom, which is extremely high considering the modulars they are in,” said Knapp Elementary Home & School Association President Gwen Pescatore at Monday’s committee meeting. “Who is it that is making the decisions? I know you have guidelines as to what the suggested numbers are.”

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Diane Holben said it all depends on space available at each building. At present, Knapp Elementary has 85 sixth graders, she said. All sixth-grade classes at Knapp are held in modulars, as well as one fifth-grade class.

Pescatore said she has spent time reading some research papers on the topic, and every one said "it does nothing but harm to the children by putting them in class sizes this large."

"Especially, our English as a Second Language families are at risk, which is 50 percent of our Knapp population," Pescatore said. "We already have struggling PSSA test scores, so we're already trying to bring those up and now I feel like that is just setting them further back."

Pescatore said sixth grade is a big transition year to middle school. She had heard of other elementary schools having behavior issues with large classroom sizes. 

"I feel like this is just a bad past example, and we’re trying it yet again and I don’t understand why,” she said.

Holben said Director of Elementary Education Dr. Elizabeth Santoro continues her analysis on the classroom sizes. She said Santoro will continue to monitor the schools through August before making a decision on whether or not to add classes at a particular grade level at a particular school.

“There will come a point in August to add a section or not,” Holben said. “We try to get as many enrollments done as possible before that decision, because we do have enrollments and disenrollments that happen throughout the year.”

Pescatore asked if someone is looking at actual data of test scores and space issues. There is a concern for safety with high classroom sizes as well.

“Fire code is another issue. I’ve been in those classrooms, and to try and take pictures with 25 students in that classroom, I can barely move around. I don’t know how you get children out of there safely in an emergency,” Pescatore said. “I don’t know how in a lockdown you even hide them in a space. I feel there’s so many reasons against it.”

 Holben said weekly tabs are kept at every grade at every school, and decisions on collapsing and adding are made after enrollment numbers are in by mid-August. She said it has to be a conversation among a number of people. What is being looked at, she said, is what percentage of the grade level tends to move on to the next grade. When gaining students, it’s more than 100 percent, she said, and losing students drops it below 100 percent.

“This is a serious concern. Parents are aware that it’s not just a sixth-grade issue. We have parents from kindergarten to fifth grade that are extremely upset and concerned because now they don’t trust the district is going to not make this decision that’s going to impact their child in another year,” Pescatore said. “What are the factors in making this decision? You can’t say 29 kids and that’s it in this classroom. There needs to be other factors. This is a whole part of transparency and a chance to engage parents and community in the decision making process, so that you don’t get the rumors that fly around.”

She said less than 20 students per classroom would be the “picture perfect” situation, but budget concerns prevent that from happening in the district. Even 22 to 24 students in a classroom is fine, she said.

“When you start going so far extreme, that’s where it becomes a concern,” she said.

Committee member Carolyn Murphy said the district added five new teachers at the end of August 2013.

“We will look over this as well,” Murphy said.

Committee member Suzan Leonard said the district "flags" schools when they get near the maximum classroom guideline.  

Henry Galloway, of Lansdale Avenue, Lansdale Borough, said his son attends Knapp Elementary and had his fifth-grade classes last year in the modulars.

“You can’t even walk through without disrupting classrooms. Then, you’re going to go from a small room now of 23 to 24 children to 28 children,” he said. “If the teacher has to separate children or move them, she has no room. So, she’s disrupting her class and the children’s learning is taking even longer because she has to spend more time trying to keep a child that might be a little disruptive.”

Galloway also said Lansdale Borough and surrounding towns are growing in population.

“You’re going to have a bigger problem coming down the line,” he said.

Leonard said parents should be aware of one thing – the district has the best interests of everybody’s children at heart.

“When (Santoro) comes along and says, ‘We need a teacher at Knapp,’ we say ‘OK.’ You do need to keep your voices heard. I’ve been there; I’ve been there for debates on class size, and it does help when you have a group that can come forward,” Leonard said.

Another parent, Debbie Chappell Auch, said parental involvement in the decision is important.

“I understand big decisions need to be made by the administration, absolutely. The initial decision making needs to be done by the administration, but the final decisions, in my opinion, specifically on subjects that impact kids, ought to involve the parents and community,” she said.

She said school starts in two weeks, and there is not much more time to look into this issue this year.

“There’s not a lot of opportunity for parents to chime in on this issue before the lists come out, and we see the lists on the board and parents find out their kid is in a classroom, for example, with 30 kids. At that point, I think it would create a firestorm that the district would like to avoid,” Auch said.

Auch said she appreciated that the district has to systematically look at all 13 schools, but the issue should be resolved amongst parents and administration.

“We know this will make an impact on those kids’ PSSA scores. Why would we do that?” Auch said. 

Parent Laurie Spencer asked where Knapp Elementary School falls in line with facility upgrades, given the school’s consistent growth. Holben said she would check with the director of facilities on that question, and said the district has a process of addressing one school renovation per year.

“We make sure attention is paid to each school, in turn,” she said. “There is a regular cycle of looking at each school and determining renovation needs. But there are exceptions based on necessary repairs.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Leonard said parents will be coming to Tuesday’s school board session seeking an answer: Will there be 28, 29 or 30 students per classroom or not?

“The administration and board are concerned about size of classrooms and will try to make every effort not to go to the extreme end of the guideline,” Leonard said.