District 161’s enrollment of 2,303 students may be 48 fewer students overall compared to last school year, but certain classes have increased head counts that some parents say are too much for teachers to handle.
Superintendent Dana Smith shared the 2018-19 enrollment numbers with the District 161 school board at its Aug. 27 meeting. The statistics include numbers for two kindergarten sections and a first grade section at Western Avenue School, as well as two fifth grade sections at Heather Hill School that are at capacity.
Western Avenue’s kindergarten is divided into two full sections of 25 students, and its first grade has a full section of 25 students. Heather Hill has two full fifth grade sections with 28 students each.
Smith said the board and administration have targeted a maximum of 25 students for kindergarten through second grades and 28 students for third through fifth grades. They base decisions on staffing and class size on previous and projected enrollment numbers, he said.
Another handful of classes throughout the district are pushing capacity but could still accommodate more students if needed.
Lisa Kauffman, parent of a fifth grader at Heather Hill, said her son’s class grew from 19 students in fourth grade to 28 students in fifth grade.
“The fifth graders are big; rooms are not large and students are uncomfortable,” she said. “While we’re grateful for the new air conditioning, my son came home complaining of the additional noise in the classrooms.”
Kauffman also said she is concerned that students have to share specials like gifted art with other schools because of reduced staff.
“Fifth grade is a very important year,” she said. “Testing provides for Parker (Junior High) placement, and we’re concerned about the very large class size, if it will have a negative effect on those test scores.”
The nine other fifth grade classes in the district have between 19 and 22 students each.
“We have a problem with what appears to be inequality among the fifth grades, and it’s frustrating as a parent,” Kauffman said.
Smith said continuing to provide students and parents with the “abnormally low” class sizes they are accustomed to at Heather Hill is a challenge.
“When you’re used to being in a class of 16, going to 20 is a large jump,” he said. “Realistically, though, as we staff for the future … we have to have class sizes that are manageable, and 28 is certainly manageable.”
Heather Hill is the smallest District 161 building with 233 students, followed by Flossmoor Hills with 305 students, Serena Hills with 327, Western Avenue with 425 and Parker Junior High with 922.
All buildings have the same access to reading specialists and other support staff, Smith said.
“The (staff-to-student) ratios are better at Heather, for example, than at Western or Flossmoor Hills because of the number of students,” Smith said. “So I feel very comfortable, especially with the two teachers, Ms. (Barb) Radeke and Mr. (James) Czerwonka, two very skilled, highly professional people.”
Smith also said the district is deliberate in not separating siblings when students are outplaced to other schools because classes are full. The outplaced students and their families have the option after one year to return to their previous schools, he added.
District 161 parent Katie Sikkema said she believes her child and other kindergarteners at Western Avenue would be best served if the classes were divided into three sections as they have been in the past.
She said that as a teacher herself she believes a lack of one-on-one attention can have repercussions later on in a student’s education.
“I’m (speaking) as a concerned parent to this very foundational year where these kids are going to learn letters, numbers, math for the first time,” Sikkema said. “Our teacher appears already stressed and overwhelmed at the size of that room.”
Parent Amie Day said she also has a child in kindergarten at Western Avenue and is worried the teachers will need assistance going forward.
“Ms. (Amanda) Watson is amazing, and Ms. (Sara) Piekosz is amazing,” Day said. “We don’t doubt their ability, but it’s an overwhelming amount of students to be in there for open house even, and to just feel the warmth of the room as well as all those 5-year-old minds ready for action raising their hands. It’s just a lot.”
Smith said that while research does not support adding instructional aides to reduce the effects of class size, the administration and board would look into how assistance can be provided and the costs that would be involved.
Board President Michelle Hoereth, who has a child in kindergarten at Western Avenue, said she “completely understands” where parents’ concerns are coming from. She said the board will have a lot to discuss over the next couple months on how to approach this issue in the future.
“This is something we have been dealing with year after year,” Hoereth said. “We want our students to have the absolute best experience in kindergarten that will prepare them for first grade, so we will not move through this school year without making sure both of those kindergarten teachers as well as the fifth grade teachers at Heather Hill are supported the way they need to be.”