Overcrowded Classrooms Leads to Hiring More Staff

Citing overcrowded classrooms in the fifth grades at Ernest P. Barka and Grinnell elementary schools, the Derry School Board voted to add a paraprofessional position to Barka and a fifth-grade classroom and teacher to Grinnell.
The board voted unanimously to approve the positions at its Sept. 10 meeting, after data was presented by Superintendent Laura Nelson and principals Dan LaFleur of Barka and Mary Hill of Grinnell.
The salary for the paraprofessional is estimated at $24,000. The salary and benefits for the full-time teacher is estimated at $80,000.

Barka School
Using enrollment spreadsheets, Nelson said that of Barka’s four fifth-grade classes, three have 27 students each and one has 25 students. The fifth-grade team has four teachers, she said.
“It is difficult to meet daily needs with classes of that size,” Nelson said, adding that the district recommendation for fifth-grade is “not to exceed” 25 students in a class.
Nelson said she met with LaFleur, Assistant Principal Stephanie Pike and fifth-grade teachers to assess the situation. “We talked about how to best meet the students’ needs, to be school-specific instead of ‘what’s good for one class is good for another,’” Nelson said.
The temporary solution for Barka is the aide, or paraprofessional. LaFleur said the fifth grade is working in teams this year, with two teachers per team, and to bring in a new teacher and a fifth classroom would disrupt the bonding.
But a paraprofessional assigned to fifth grade could relieve a great deal of the pressure on his four teachers, LaFleur said. That person could provide extra coverage at the end of the day; help with hands-on projects in Social Studies and science labs; guide small groups in reading and math; edit writing; assist with behavior safety and supervision; and “reach and challenge all levels of learners.” The aide would be a “floater,” LaFleur said, going where she or he is needed.
But this is only a solution for one year, LaFleur warned. With a larger-than-usual fourth grade class coming up, he said he thought Barka would have to add a fifth grade in 2014. There are 108 students “coming up” from fourth grade, he said.
Barka is a former School Choice school under the federal No Child Left Behind act. With the district phasing out School Choice, he said parents were offered the chance for their children to return to their neighborhood schools, but “We did not lose one School Choice student,” he said.
Board member Neal Ochs asked if there were a “para” in another school who could transfer to Barka, but Nelson said such was not the case. “We scaled down, and only budgeted for the ‘paras’ we needed,” she said. “It will have to be a new hire.”
Board member Dan McKenna asked where in the budget the paraprofessional’s salary would come from.
Nelson said it would come from the bottom line of the current budget. She explained that there were places in the budget where expected spending “did not come to fruition, and we didn’t have to spend everything.” For example, the district budgeted for the Affordable Care Act penalty and ended up not having to pay it.
“It will not come from the $800,000,” she said, referring to the $800,000 added back into the budget by community members in the February deliberative session.
The board voted 5-0 to approve hiring the paraprofessional at up to $24,000.
Grinnell School
Grinnell principal Mary Hill planned on two fifth grades this year, and “thought it was a healthy bet.” Because of summer move-ins, she also ended up with fifth-grade classes of 29 each.
Because Grinnell is a “focus school” under the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver, there is a need for teachers to do direct instruction with smaller groups. 
She’s concerned about students who have already bonded with their teachers, even though school is less than a month old. But she said the parents are supportive of a change. “They are saying to me, ‘Twenty-nine kids? What are you going to do about it?’ The parents are really concerned,” she told the board.
Hill’s school is small and limited in space, she said. But she can clear a full-sized classroom by moving a reading specialist and an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) specialist into other quarters.
“Will you be holding class in the hallway?” McKenna asked.
Hill said no.
Nelson clarified that the teacher position would be for one year. “But we are looking at adding staff at Grinnell,” she added.
Like LaFleur, Hill is looking at a larger fourth grade. “We will need that position, barring a large ‘move out,’” she said. “We are looking at all our numbers.”
The board approved hiring a teacher for a third fifth grade and spending up to $80,000, 5-0.
Ochs said, “If you look at the numbers, transferring a teacher to Grinnell from another school would only add to the classes in that school. It’s a matter of equity. We need to provide an equal education for all our children.”
Nelson said the “equity index” is the maximum class size recommended by the district, up to 22 through third grade and up to 25, fourth and fifth. “That allows the board to continue to provide equity for all children,” she said.
Nelson and Hill said they would work to make the transition to a third classroom smooth for the students, with parent information nights and attention to the students’ needs.
“I’m concerned about the short-range impact on our students, but the long-term benefit outweighs that,” McKenna said.
“We don’t make these decisions lightly,” board chairman Brenda Willis said. “We need to do what is right for all our students.”

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