The students and teachers at Julia Randall Elementary School have faced big challenges this year, from dramatic increases in class sizes to problems with student behavior on the buses.
But at the close of the first semester as the district’s only school for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, teachers are working to take advantage of the opportunities the changes offer,
Principal Rob Varner reported recently to the school board.
“Our teachers stepped to the plate: it is what it is,” said Varner. “That’s almost our motto over there. The reality that we live in. The teachers have been busting their butts to make sure the needs of the students are met. I’m really proud of our staff in that regard.”
Recent scores from the state still rank the recently upgraded campus as “highly performing” on one measure and gave it a “B” on another. The school has 577 third- through
fifth-graders and 46 preschoolers, with 56 staff members.
Teachers hope to maintain those mostly test-score based ratings this year, despite a 15 to 18 percent increase in the average class.
“That’s the thing you hear from the teachers. My teachers to a person would say that’s been the biggest challenge: to go from 23 students in a class to 28 or 32. When you add five or six kids it doesn’t sound like much, but it really is.”
In addition, the strain of busing kids from all over town to a single campus instead of three neighborhood schools has also shown up in a sharp rise in discipline problems on the bus.
Varner reported to the board that student behavior on the buses has generated five times as many reports to the principal as behavior on campus.
“The biggest challenge is the bus, and we’re working on it. You get that many 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds on the bus and it’s difficult. It’s just a matter of getting a lot of things in place and trying to support the bus drivers.”
The school has had two assemblies to talk about behavior on the bus and some children have been banned from riding the bus for a period, which often helps get the parents’ attention.
“We’re meeting with what I like to call my 22 frequent fliers: most of them have been culprits on the bus as well. We’re working with them. We’re talking about good choices, good decision-making. They’ve been coming along pretty well. But the buses are full — they’re crowded. So we have some issues.”
Last year, the district had three K-5 campuses, which means many more students lived much closer to the school in their neighborhood. But the school board closed Frontier, its top-performing elementary school, to save about $600,000. It also decided to concentrate K-2 at Payson Elementary School and 3-5 at Julia Randall Elementary School. That made it much easier to make all of the classes in a single grade level the same size.
That resulted in a modest increase in class sizes at Payson Elementary, a roughly 10 percent increase to about 24 students. Research suggests that small class sizes yield the most benefits at the lower grades.
However, even before the big increases this year the district’s class sizes remained well above the size that produces the strongest academic gains, according to many studies.
The abrupt increase in class size has put a strain on teachers, since larger classes can demand different strategies.
“If we’d added a student or two over a period of three years, maybe we wouldn’t notice the impact so much. But like bam, to go from a class of 24 one year and a class of 32 the next, that takes an adjustment. Teachers have finally gotten to that point where they’re finally understanding the procedures: finding ways to get things done.
“Change their routines a little bit so they have more time and preparation. But at the start of the year it was like, ‘OK, here’s six or seven more kids for you.’ That’s kind of tough, especially with the diversity of kids in the classroom.”
Varner said the recession has also taken a heavy toll on young families — burdening many of the young students with extra challenges.
The number of low-income families qualified for the federally funded free and reduced school lunch program has increased from 39 percent of the student body in 2006 to 68 percent this year.
“One of the things that I see in the last 12 years is we have a lot of families that are satellite families: step-parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. We have a lot of foster families. Having a two-parent family is becoming less and less commonplace for our kids. So I would say 60 or 70 percent of my kids are in that type of situation.”
One bright spot Varner has noticed is a decrease in the number of students who don’t speak English fluently. He said the district has had good success with English immersion programs that provide non-English speaking students with just enough extra help that they can function in a regular classroom.
The district has also aggressively sought extra help for students with special needs. Right now, the special needs population accounts for a full 16 percent of the student body. The law requires state and federal governments to provide substantial extra resources for those students. Many often work one on one with a classroom aide and many of the special education classes have only three to 10 students.
Varner said that the teachers and students have all worked this semester to adjust to a new school and create a new campus culture.
Now, he hopes they can take advantage of some of the teamwork possibilities of having all the kids from the same grade level at a single school site, rather than split up among three campuses.
For instance, the teachers are now working on adding the new, national common core academic standards into the curriculums. In addition, the school has started to focus on new state requirements that will make it much harder for students who can’t read fluently in third grade to advance on to fourth grade.
Varner said that the school has a reading specialist who works in small groups with students falling behind their peers. The school has several programs to identify struggling students and get them extra help, including Response to Intervention and Title 1. Currently, the school has 14 students in the RTI program, 51 students in Title 1 for reading and 40 students in Title 1 for math.
“We’re all on the same page: teachers meet together every week. Plan together. The kids are together. They’re building those relationships,” said Varner. “It’s been very cool. I admit that I miss my little guys — my K-2 guys too.”
He said he also missed the knowledge that he could work with the same students and families and kids for five years before they moved on.
However, he credited the teachers that haven’t had a raise in three years and even lost state incentive pay for extra training this year for coping with the challenges.
“Here we are a ‘highly performing’ school, so that says a lot about the people that are working here.
“We make no excuses for kids and their backgrounds. We know we have them for six and a half hours a day and we’re going to do everything we can to teach them. We have no control over what goes on outside these walls, but we do have control over what goes on inside these walls. Are they frustrated? Absolutely. Are they concerned about class size? Yes. But they love their kids and at the end of the day they’ll do what they can to meet the needs of their students.