District responds to uneven kindergarten enrollment

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The geographic line that runs through Colchester, determining whether little learners will march into Union Memorial School or Porters Point School come fall, yielded unbalanced teams this year.

Last month, administrators representing the respective kindergarten through second grade institutions came before the school board hoping to even out the scale.

PPS principal Carolyn Millham called May’s kindergarten screening session “robust,” with 90 prospective students in attendance. Four more have since been added to the unusually large roster.

“[It] is a wonderful problem to have, but it leaves us with a high number of kindergarten students in our classrooms,” she said.

Vermont Education Quality Standards recommend kindergarten through third grade classrooms average fewer than 20 students per teacher, according to a presentation given at the July 18 school board meeting.

With four classrooms in each school, UMS had an average class size of 18 to 19, with PPS hosting 23 to 24 students in each class — well above the state recommendation and the numbers posted in surrounding towns.

Superintendent Amy Minor offered the Colchester School Board a trio of possible paths forward: Keep the status quo, offering class size reduction waivers to four families or add another kindergarten classroom at PPS to bring numbers within the state guidelines.

“Of the three grade levels that I have in my building, [adding a teacher] would make the biggest difference in kindergarten,” Millham said. “They’re really learning how to become a student and how to become a learner.”

Among the benefits offered in smaller class sizes, Millham cited increased individual attention from teachers, better tailored learning opportunities, more adult support and sufficient physical space to engage in “exploratory learning.”

Pressed for the possible cause of the influx by school board member Curt Taylor, Millham said she’s seen more and more parents approaching the school after purchasing a house, rather than temporarily renting an apartment in town.

A demographics report presented to the board last fall examined such local real estate trends can predict kindergarten enrollment.

The study’s projections for total sign-ups for the 2017-18 school year were close to numbers now seen, Minor said, but considerably underestimated PPS enrollment.

“That caught us off guard,” she said. “If the demographer predicted this, we might have had a conversation much earlier.”

Minor said staff first explored the option of shifting current staff members down from a different grade level without success.

“We’re not really solving the problem; we’re moving the problem to a different grade level,” Minor said. “Enrollment in grades one and two is just not low enough.”

Enrollment data from the past decade shows one other significant spike: During the 2013-14 school year, 101 kindergarteners attended PPS. Board members approved the hire of an additional teacher in that instance, too, Minor noted.

Minor said the district then weighed moving the line that divides the town (around Williams Road), but decided enrollment numbers on each side were too unpredictable to justify a permanent change.

Also considered were classroom reduction waivers offered to families near Williams Road, Minor said, moving four students from PPS to UMS. The method was most recently used in 2010.

But in that scenario, all four classrooms at PPS would still fail to meet the education standards, as would two of the rooms at UMS, Minor said, with no guarantee the numbers would stay static throughout the year.

Ultimately, the board unanimously approved hiring a full-time kindergarten teacher and paraeducator to start in the fall in a currently empty classroom at PPS.

The teacher will sign a contract after August 1, Minor said. In accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, the contract will only last for a year.

At the meeting, district finance director George Trieb estimated the combined salary costs would total between $70,000 to $120,000, depending on prior experience.

After the vote, school board chairman Mike Rogers broadened the topic, pointing to long-discussed options for changing the physical kindergarten buildings.

“Is this a consideration when we start examining an addition or reconstruction at Porters? Or a new building?” Rogers asked. “Is this going to be part of the discussion?”

“I think it should be,” Millham answered.