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Up, Up and Away: Class Sizes Increase But Funds Lacking To Bring Them Down

An additional 90 students this year is creating worries for School District.

With the good can come the bad. 

And it appears that Belmont School District's long-stellar reputation for educational excellence has come back to bite Belmont's education pipeline as district classrooms are filled to the brim with students.

There are 347 first graders in Belmont, the largest grade level in the entire district, numbers seen in other classes up and down the K-12 grade structure to where enrollment in Belmont's six schools has breached the 4,200 student mark, and is expected to jump again in the coming school year.

But despite accepting data and a series of short-term staffing recommendations to stem the problems from an advisory group he established, Belmont School District Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston made a definitive statement on overcrowding presented Tuesday, Feb. 12 before the Belmont School Committee.

"We have no money now for me to make the recommended changes," said Kingston.

Where did all these kids come from? According to historical data, anecdotal evidence and information provided to the 12-member Class Size Advisory Group, led by Janet Carey, many "new" students are residents who are returning to the public schools from private schools. 

According to Assistant Superintendent Janice Darius, 81 K-12 students from Belmont left private schools with many of them heading back to the school district that annually ranks as one of the highest performing in the state and US.

"One reason is possibly the economy is bringing some back," said Kingston. 

When increased number of students began showing up on school doorsteps and in the classroom data this school year, Kingston formed the task force whose aim was to find information on both the effect of students in Belmont's classrooms and what needed to be done to mitigate the situation. 

The advisory group noted that the Brookings Institution provide conflicting findings; one that class size doesn't matter but reducing a class by seven to ten students result in long-term achievement.

Elementary classroom sizes about district's recommended levels

Belmont elementary schools are uniformly larger than the districts guidelines – first grade classes are between 20 to 26 students while the guidelines call for 19 to 23 students while 20 percent of sections at Belmont High School have more than 25 students.

The task force recommend Kingston to reduce class sizes in two specific grades; next school year's second-grade class at the Wellington Elementary and the 6th grade at the Chenery Middle School in 2013-14.

With between 23 to 26 students in the five Wellington first-grade classes above the 19 to 23 per classroom guide line limit, the advisory group recommends that two additional second-grade teachers be hired.

The group said even if the district froze enrollment for the coming grade and redistrict Belmont's students will not resolve the issues at "there is little capacity for the other three elementary schools to absorb the overflow," reads the report.

The coming Chenery 6th grade has between 25-to-28 students in each class, four to five students about the guideline standard, a situation that also requires increasing a pair of teachers.

While taking the task force's recommendations seriously, Kingston said under the $44.2 million "Available Revenue" budget the school district is using to formulate its fiscal 2014 budget, "there isn't the resources to move on (on the problem)," he said. 

The prospects of additional student – one group estimates Belmont could see one-hundred more students in the next school year (a number that Kingston believes is an "exaggeration") – could only exacerbate the overcrowding problem as each new student "costs" the district $12,500 to educate in additional staff and instruction. 

Unless additional fund above the current "Available Revenue" levels – something that Kingston is hopeful will occur by the time Town Meeting approves the school budget in June – "it will make a dire situation more so," said Kingston on Monday when the district's budget was presented to the Belmont Board of Selectmen. 

Judy Phalen, a parent of a Wellington first grader, believes that in addition to more children being taught in the Wellington, there is a logistics inbalance at the school her child attends. 

"It's (not that classrooms are) unused but are unassigned" for classes, where precious space is used as conference and break-out "space" for teachers or storage," said Phalen, who pointed out that the school's aftercare program is sectioned off into a single room where it's so overcrowded that it's "exploding" and has forced the program to suspend adding additional children. 

"The Wellington is carrying the burden of the added students" for the entire town, said Phalen. 

Lee Adams February 14, 2013 at 02:57 AM
I ask for Dr. Thomas Kingston and Janet Carey (and Class Size Advisory Group) to provide the Belmont Taxpayers the following information: 1. How many METCO students are currently enrolled in Belmont School System? 2. How many METCO students are enrolled per grade? 3. What are the financial contributions the City of Boston and/or the Commonwealth provide Belmont to host the METCO Program? 4. What is the educational cost to the Belmont Taxpayers to support the METCO Program? 5. If Belmont were to withdraw from the METCO Program, would the current METCO contribution provide resources directly benefiting Belmont students and their education – small classes, no cuts to teachers and so forth? 6. What is the current cost per student in Belmont (it’s not $12,500)? 7. What cost saving measures have been taken to cut cost from Dr. Kinston’s office (the Central Office)? These are fair and straight forward questions the Belmont Taxpayers have a right to know. Openness and transparency are a reasonable requests. Please provide all the facts before sounding the alarms of "there isn't the resources to move on (on the problem)," or "it will make a dire situation more so." I look forward to the answers and welcome comments for fellow Belmont Taxpayers. Thank you.
Art Peters February 14, 2013 at 01:23 PM
What organization established the" class size guide lines"? Brookings is correct, class size does not matter. Competent teachers do matter. When was the last time a Belmont teacher was fired for being incompetent?
Joe February 14, 2013 at 03:13 PM
Be careful, even though your questions are valid ones and don't bother me, I'm sure many will accuse you of not being "politically correct"...
Joe February 14, 2013 at 03:19 PM
Only an additional 90 students... Keep allowing the knocking down of single family homes and replacing them and the yards with two or more houses or condos, heck they're even knocking down churches. Then that 90 number will only increase.
Judy P February 14, 2013 at 04:48 PM
I also have questions about the existence of the pre-K program at Wellington (vs. other town buildings/schools) given the space issue and the increased demands at Wellington to service the traditional K-4 population. It's not clear to me if taxpayer money is supporting pre-K tuition for non-special needs students. I'm fully in support of offsetting the costs of the special needs kids, but as with most parents in town, I paid 100% of my child's pre-K education and don't want my taxes to support non-special needs' students at this educational level. Judy P
rachel February 14, 2013 at 06:30 PM
As an an educator who had read many of the studies out there (in addition to Brookings) I believe class size DOES matter (I have yet to meet a teacher that doesn't agree. ) As a parent of a child at Wellington, the teachers are excellent. I worry more about loosing good teacher who are overburdened and also the complacency in Belmont about this situation.
Lee Adams February 14, 2013 at 07:52 PM
Point taken Joe. It’s not a matter of being “political incorrect” or uncaring, but in these financial times difficult, at times painful and unpleasant decisions/cuts must be made. A reality we must face. The Town of Belmont is unable to provide levels services as expected, may have trouble financing out current educational excellence as this article mentioned, and no plans in place to address the more than $180-million Debt Obligations. These are just a few of the Town’s financial problems. Belmont Taxpayers have a responsibility to their community first. Asking the Taxpayers to burden the additional educational costs for students who don’t reside here in these times is wrong. Our responsibility should be for the Belmont students first which I have no complaints with. On a side note. Why doesn’t the City of Boston open slots in their exam schools (such as Boston Latin) for students from METCO sponsored towns? Shouldn’t diversity be a 2-way street?
Joe February 14, 2013 at 08:19 PM
Lee, yes you are correct, diversity should work both ways. Like you mention, if someone in a town that participates in METCO wanted to attend a Boston school, they should be allowed to. And yes we should take care of residents first then help out others, same should apply to aid to other countries, let's help out hurricane victims, homeless, etc. in the US first
Megan Olowinski February 15, 2013 at 12:06 PM
It is my understanding that the preschool program was "designed" into the new Wellington building plans. It was not added as an afterthought. The preschool has their own staff and personnel and I would assume does not additionally "tax" the K-4 staff. Tuition offsets a need that would be there whether there were typical students or not. Dont worry, you are not helping to pay typical kids tuitions. Also, this preschool has been housed at the Burbank and WinnBrook schools over the past 20 years. Not only was it "designed" into the new building, but it is another elementary schools turn.
Judy P February 19, 2013 at 07:12 PM
While the pre-K program may have been designed into the new "Wellington," I have constantly heard from Dr. Kingston on down concerns that the school is already too small going forward to accommodate that for which it was primarily designed -- the K - 4 population. With the exception of kindergarten, Wellington currently bears the burden of highest enrollment across grades. 1st is at 105% of the district-wide mean (Burbank is the lowest at 92%), 2nd is at 104% (Burbank is the lowest at 94%), 3rd grade is at 109% (Butler is at 90%) and 4th grade is a whopping 114% (Butler is at 89% -- nearly 6 less students per class than Wellington). Enrollment at Wellington is at 122% of June 2011 rates (equivalent to 92 extra students).

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