District works to balance offerings at its 3 high schools

2014-02-01T00:15:00Z 2014-02-04T08:02:09Z District works to balance offerings at its 3 high schoolsBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

For a while, earlier this year, it looked like Skyview High might have to drop its theater arts class.

In all, only 18 students had registered and generally the school likes to have around 23 or 24 students in its classes. If one class dips too low, usually it pushes enrollment too high in another, said Principal Debra Black.

“It’s tough to juggle,” she said.

In the end, Skyview elected to keep the class and to work on recruiting more students for next year, something administrators don’t think will be too hard.

“It’s not a lack of interest,” Black said.

The school puts on plays and a musical each year — all of which is done through after-school programs. And each year, students flock to participate. But for students trying to find space in a crowded class schedule during the school day, sometimes the more niche offerings, like theater arts, get pushed aside.

For students who live in the boundaries of one high school but find the electives they want to take are offered at another, transferring can be an option.

“It’s not impossible,” Black said.

But, she noted, it could be a lengthy process.

It’s something the district tries to keep an eye on as it struggles to ensure that each of its three high schools is able to offer roughly the same courses for students regardless of where those students attend.

“It’s equity,” said Kathy Olson, executive director of school leadership support for the district.

Olson works alongside Brenda Koch, SD2’s other executive director of school leadership support, each overseeing one half of the district’s 30 schools.

Electives, which in some cases are dependent on teachers who have specialized training, can be harder to offer in equal numbers. Skyview, for example, lost its computer programming class a few years ago when the teacher retired. Both West and Senior have retained their programming classes.

Black said a number of factors play into the decision of what electives a school offers, including looking at what’s available at the Career Center, SD2’s vocational and tech ed school. Currently, the Career Center offers a handful of computer design classes.

Most important, Black said, is a school’s employment budget, which dictates how many full-time equivalent instructors it can hire. The school could have half a dozen open teaching positions, but if there’s only three new FTEs in the budget, they can only hire three new teachers.

“Everything for us runs on FTEs,” Black said.

To make her point, she pointed to next year’s budget. Skyview will receive no new funds for additional teachers, she said. Across town at West High, Rob Stanton teaches an elective on genocide each semester. The class is unique to the school.

Stanton is one of West’s history teachers and he created the genocide class after receiving a scholarship from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about 10 years ago.

He followed up his studies there by attending other conferences over the years, learning more and collecting more material about world conflict and its victims.

“We go to these conferences and we never use the information,” he said.

So he sought approval from the principal and put together a class focused specifically on genocide, which quickly become relatively popular. He now teaches three classes of it a semester, filling up nearly every one.

“We really try to challenge the way the kids think,” Stanton said.

There’s less wiggle room among the required courses students take. Those core classes are much the same across the three high schools because every student has to take them to graduate, Olson said.

“The maths have to look alike,” she said. “The sciences have to look alike.”

English and history, too, she said. The curriculum is state-mandated and a student can’t graduate without them.

Differences in the core classes show up in the range of Advanced Placement, or AP, classes that the high schools offer. AP classes tend to be advanced versions of the core subjects required for graduation and can give students college credit if they pass the class’s AP test.

Trouble can brew when one high school offers an AP class not available at the other schools. So the district will oftentimes take special pains to make sure the schools have equal AP offerings, Olson said.

“Where’s that tipping point?” Koch said. “We’re starting to have more of those conversations.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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