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INDIANA AREA: Class sizes under review

by on August 13, 2013 11:00 AM

Indiana Area School District enrollment is certain to be higher than last year when classes resume Aug. 27, and administrators will rely on creative ways to balance class sizes in the district’s four elementary schools.

What remains uncertain is exactly where the bulges in the enrollment numbers will settle at the end of the month.

The school board on Monday hired two elementary teachers and directed that two more full-time and four part-time elementary teaching positions be posted for applications.

Along with an agreement to expand the Indiana University of Pennsylvania student teaching program and authorization for a form of enrollment recruiting, District Superintendent Dale Kirsch said he’s been given the tools needed to keep classes within the optimum levels of 20 for early elementary and 25 for upper elementary grades.

“But we have to be cautious,” Kirsch said.

One of the enrollment bulges already is showing in the first grade at Eisenhower Elementary School. Six parents of Eisenhower students appealed to the board Monday to hire a third teacher to help reduce the sizes of the classes.

Last year, when the same students were in kindergarten, the district hired a third teacher when it became apparent that the classes were too big, Tamara Leeper told the board.

“I urge the board to not let history repeat itself,” Leeper said. “Last year the students struggled, especially in the fall. When it was glaringly obvious that the needs of these children would not be met, a teacher was added in mid-February. I ask that you not wait until February 2014, when the same scenario happens again, to add a third teacher.”

Rosanne Grettler said she considered enrolling her daughter in Keys Montessori School but has decided to send her child to Eisenhower because she has “never heard a bad thing about Eisenhower Elementary School.” But if a third teacher is needed and none is hired, she said, “I will have to pull her and go someplace else.”

The board didn’t immediately act on the parents’ concern about the first-grade class at Eisenhower School.

Kirsch said efforts to plan for expected enrollment levels easily could be dashed by unexpected registration of new students in the next two weeks.

The board allowed the administration to selectively solicit parents to voluntarily allow their children to be reassigned among elementary schools, with transportation provided by the district, to try to balance class sizes.

Kirsch said the district also continues to offer an open-enrollment option allowing parents to decide which school their children should attend — space permitting — with the parents responsible for transportation.

And at the academic committee’s recommendation, the board approved an “expanded field experience” program to allow sophomore and junior education majors from IUP to monitor and assist teachers in district classes. However, they would not be assigned as student teachers.

While Kirsch spoke of the need for flexibility to shift students and place teachers in response to enrollment numbers that may not be firm until after classes begin, board members debated the financial issues of hiring additional teachers.

A motion to advertise for two part-time music teachers was approved on a vote of 5 to 1, with board President Tom Harley and directors Hilliary Creely, David Ferguson, Walter Schroth and Robert Werner in favor. Board member Robert Gongaware was opposed.

Directors Alison Billon, Diana Paccapaniccia and Brian Petersen were absent.

Gongaware and, to an extent, Harley, both cautioned the board against tapping the district’s fund balance for unbudgeted expenses.

“We can do this now, but it will be more difficult next year” to maintain the spending, Harley warned. “We are in a tunnel and there’s no light at the end of it.”

Both repeated the warnings before the board voted, with no apparent opposition, to advertise the additional elementary teaching positions.

“There is no guarantee we will actually fill these positions,” Harley said.

The board also voted 5 to 1 on a motion to hire Laura Wissinger, of Indiana, as an elementary teacher at a salary of $64,919 and Jenna Irwin, formerly of Indiana and now of Loudon County, Virginia, to an elementary position at a salary of $63,705.

Gongaware cast a symbolic no vote, calling the salaries evidence of the “incongruity of the current labor contract” with the Indiana Area Education Association.

The salary stipulated for Irwin’s level of training and experience is 45 percent more than she earned in a teaching job in Virginia, where the cost of living is much higher than in Indiana, Gongaware said.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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