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First-grade teachers worried about class sizes at St. Lawrence Central

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BRASHER FALLS - First-grade teachers at St. Lawrence Central Elementary School this week learned that they will have projected class sizes of 24 students in three classrooms next year, which they say could be educationally detrimental for many students.

Teachers, in a handout provided to school board members at this weeks’ meeting, said the higher class sizes will result in an increase in behavioral issues, a hike in students not receiving the attention they need due to the higher teacher-studio ratios and an inability to follow the prescribed small group instruction in the district’s tiered reading plan.

“In an already high needs district, student needs are only going to increase. Adding two more students to a class may not seem like a huge difference. However, depending on the specific academic and/or behavioral needs of those two additional students in reality it could be like adding 10 more students,” the teachers wrote.

First-grade teacher Aimee Perry said when she started teaching at St. Lawrence Central in 2000 classes had less than 20 students, a trend that continued for the first five years of her classroom teaching career. She said classes then increased to 20 or 21 students for the next few years. “In the most recent years, it has been 22 or more students, and we can no longer look solely at the number. Many students are coming into our classrooms with high management or high academic needs,” she said.

“This year has been my most challenging,” she said, noting in additional to classroom management she also has reams of data that must be compiled for her students. “Considering we live in a high needs area, we are likely to receive even more high needs students. I love my job. I love working with children. But I’m very concerned about meeting the needs of our younger learners. Classes of 24 will be very difficult,” Ms. Perry noted.

Fellow first-grade teacher Kate Castaldo told the board Ms. Perry’s concerns were shared by the other first-grade teachers. “Aimee is not alone in having those high management needs. We see what is coming, and we are all dealing with the same issues,” she noted.

Margaret D. Snyder, a high school English teacher, noted she was standing in front of the school board in her role as a parent, not a teacher.

“Eighteen years ago, I first stepped foot on the SLC campus as a student teacher in Mrs. Sharon Brown’s room. I expected to complete my assignment and move out of the north country to a community more like the suburban middle class neighborhood I had grown up in. Instead, I fell in love with this school and this community. I fell in love with the energy of SLC. I fell in love with the people that chose to make this community the place where they would work and many of them lived,” she said.

She noted she was hired to teach English in the district the following year and is her 17th year as a district employee.

“Three years ago, after settling down in Potsdam and having my own children, my husband and I decided that not only was this the community that I wanted to teach in, it is the community that we want our children to grow up in. I had spent 15 years working with SLC’s juniors and seniors. I saw the kind of people that this school and community could produce and these are the kind of people that I want my children to become. We sold our house in Potsdam and relocated in Brasher Falls,” she noted.

She said, as a parent, she has major concerns with the current plan for first grade for the 2013-14 school year with class sizes expected to be in the 24-student per classroom range. “These children have had to begin their school years in kindergarten classes with as many as 24 students, the largest kindergarten classes in recent memory. In addition to these large class sizes, there are a number of students in the cohort with high management needs,” she said, noting similar class sizes as the students advance to three first-grade classrooms.

“This is unacceptable. Twenty-four plus students in a primary class is not ideal under ordinary circumstances. In a high needs district, like ours, it is detrimental,” she said.

Ms. Snyder said first grade is arguably the most important year in laying the foundation for a child’s academic success. “It is the ‘learn to read’ year and my daughter and her classmates, coming from large kindergarten classes, are already at a disadvantage. It is also the year where the foundations of math, number awareness, and computation are made,” she noted.

In addition to all the foundational academic concerns, children in first grade are still learning to socialize. Behavior management is an integral part of the first grade classroom; and in classes of 24 plus students, this becomes even more of a challenge. More students dictate a higher likelihood of persistent behavior issues and more bodies in the room make it physically harder for teachers to separate students who need more space to behave: a most basic classroom management tool.

She said she was concerned, her daughter, like many other students in the large classrooms, could become lost in the larger class sizes, missing the individual teacher to student contact that is provided in smaller classes.

“I want her to be allowed to meet her potential. I want her to love school and feel supported and paid attention to. I don’t want her crying at night because of the chaos in her classroom. I don’t want her with persistent stomach aches because she in anxious about school and feels like no one is there to help her. I don’t want her to get lost before she even starts an academic career,” she said.

“As an employee in this district, I am intimately aware of the financial crisis that we have been in the midst of for the last several years. I am, as a matter of fact a member of one of the departments that have been hardest hit, losing one and a half teachers in as many years. As a teacher, I know that as hard as I try, I cannot deliver the same level of attention to a class of 25 as I did to a class of 15. It is physically impossible to get to everyone in the time allotted. While this is a real problem in an 11th grade class, it is tragic in a first grade class,” Ms. Snyder told the board.

“While I know it is essential to balance our budget, doing it on the backs of the most vulnerable students in our district in not the way. I implore you to reconsider this decision to not add another teacher at the first-grade level. My daughter and all the other sons and daughters in her grade deserve more than this,” she said.

St. Lawrence Central School Superintendent Stephen M. Putman said he couldn’t dispute any of the issues raised by Ms. Snyder or the first-grade teachers. “Two months ago, I would have recommended four first-grade teachers,” he said.

But Mr. Putman said he didn’t feel it would be fiscally prudent until the district has a contract with its teacher’s union and a better understanding of what that pact would have on the district’s benefits costs. “If those things get settled, that might make a difference,” he noted.

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