By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — It’s not easy to quantify the effects of overcrowded classrooms, but Niskayuna’s parents, staff, and teachers agree: Less is more when it comes to learning environments.
Sometimes, stories swapped over dinner between parents and students are more telling than any statistic. Deanna Bouton’s third-grader, Jack, has been a member of an oversized class every year since kindergarten at Craig Elementary, so she’s accumulated plenty of examples.
“In circle time, he might have something to share,” she said. “You can only call on so many people.”
Last year, Jack was in a class of 26 kids, the largest second-grade class in the district that year. During one particular lesson, each student was instructed to give a 10-minute presentation, and Bouton recalled how the exercise had stretched over several days.
“Everything takes that much longer with more kids,” she said.
Susan Polsinelli has second- and third-grade sons at Hillside Elementary.
“My sons’ grades have both been affected by combination classes,” she said. This happens when there’s what Polsinelli referred to as a “sandwich effect”: a large grade followed by a small grade.
Sometimes, to solve the problem, schools shift kids into a room that houses multiple grade levels, which can complicate instruction time.
And, of course, it makes classroom management a much bigger challenge than it needs to be.
“I can’t imagine being a teacher for the whole academic year,” Bouton said of the large classes full of boisterous young students. “Just the logistics of getting everyone doing one thing. . . . I think it’s difficult.”
Until a few months ago, pretty much everyone agreed that evening out class sizes to whittle the large groups and fill in the small groups would benefit students and teachers. Constricted budgets over the past few years exacerbated the problem, and parents were vocal about the need to resolve it, but no consensus existed on how to do so.
To change that, a Class Size Management Work Group was formed that included administrators, parents from every elementary school, the district’s registrar and transportation director, and a couple of school principals. Bouton and Polsinelli were both included in the group.
“We started out early on and said, ‘We’re going to have to look at short-term solutions,’ ” said interim Superintendent John Yagielski, who led the think tank through a series of seven meetings from July 2014 to January 2015. The group planned to find a way to even out class sizes for good in the district, but needed a temporary solution as fall classes loomed.
Before the committee was formed, the district opted to add a section of first grade at Hillside for the 2014-2015 school year to reduce class sizes at several schools.
The committee contributed by helping devise a program where families could volunteer to attend a different school where there’d be a less-crowded classroom.
“In a relatively short period of time, we had people at every grade level taking advantage of that,” Yagielski said of the option to attend a different school.
However, simply shifting students from big classes to small ones is an inefficient solution in the long term for plenty of reasons.
Splitting elementary school students up from their friends can be emotionally difficult for kids and put strain on parents, who may have to drive all the way across town to deliver children to play dates or birthday parties. Separating them from siblings creates even more pressure, especially for parents who may have to attend multiple open houses or choose between events on the same night at different schools.
Separating students from the school that, geographically, should be theirs also goes against a key part of the district’s culture, which encourages principals to foster loyalty to neighborhood schools.
Instead of continuing the volunteer program, another option would have been to completely redistrict, redrawing maps and forcing many families to shift to new schools. However, in addition to being disruptive and potentially upsetting, this solution also would have been only short-term; inevitably, class sizes would eventually get out of balance again.
The solution the group devised does involve a new map, but it will be implemented gradually and allows for shifts in the population of each school for years to come.
The group ultimately drafted a plan that involves six “flex zones,” sections of town where the district can assign children to one of two or even three nearby schools.
Students already in elementary school will be allowed to stay where they are, and if they have younger siblings, those children will go to the same schools as their big brothers and sisters. However, when new students move into the district or when new kindergarteners with no older siblings enroll in school, they’ll be placed based on class size, keeping the learning experience consistent for elementary students across the district.
“We’re going to work our way into this over time by focusing on the incoming kindergarten classes,” Yagielski said.
The proposed plan should remain flexible enough to accommodate changing needs over time, and not cause a noticeable increase in transportation costs.
Here’s another heartening detail: A similar system has been effective in several nearby school districts, including two in Massachusetts and one in the Capital Region — the South Glens Falls school district, where an administrator offered encouraging words to Bouton and Polsinelli in a conference call.
“It’s always nice to find out what you’ve independently come up with has worked very well somewhere else, for 20 years,” Polsinelli said.
“I’m proudest that we’re avoiding redistricting,” Bouton said. “It’s a permanent solution. All the kids in the district are going to have more equivalent experiences at each grade level.”
Though they’re proud of their outcome, the group’s proposal is still in the draft phase. Some things may change slightly, such as guidelines for class sizes at different grade levels.
Members presented it to the Board of Education on Jan. 29 and received a positive response, but the plan won’t be implemented until after a public forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, at Craig Elementary School.