Last week, The Gazette reported Billings Public Schools fall enrollment of 10,983 students in its elementary district, an increase of 189 over last year.
However, enrollment actually decreased by 17 students in grades seven and eight and grew by 206 in K-6.
The district counted 1,305 kindergartners on Oct. 1, making kindergarten the largest elementary grade level. By contrast, there were 1,111 fifth-graders.
The district has 61 kindergarten classes spread among 19 schools. Kindergartners in the Arrowhead, Newman and Burlington attendance areas are bused, respectively, to Boulder, Ponderosa and Meadowlark.
Among 61 kindergarten classes, 44 are over the 20-student state standard, seven had more than 23 students on Oct 1. The district would need to hire 15 more kindergarten teachers to reduce all classes to 20 or fewer students. The district has neither the money nor the classroom space.
According to the Oct. 1 count, the district also has 18 first-grade classrooms and 27 second-grade classrooms that exceed the 20-student standards.
Upper classes are no smaller, but state standards allow for grades three and four to have up to 28 students per classroom and grades five and six to have 30 students. So only two classes in third grade, one in fifth one in sixth are over accreditation size.
Additionally, the elementary schools have 18 combined classes with student in two grades in the same classroom.
“We make sure our combo classes do not go over accreditation,” said Brenda Koch, executive director of education. Principals try to involve parents in dealing with crowding and class size issues, Koch said. For example, parents have been asked to volunteer their students for a combo class.
If a school with smaller classes is close to a school with oversize classes, letters are sent inviting parents to consider switching to the smaller-class school. “We had only two takers this year,” said Kathy Olson, executive director of education.
To make room for more elementary students, the 99 sixth-graders from Arrowhead are at Will James Middle School, while Lewis and Clark Middle School has 103 sixth-graders from McKinley and Washington. Additionally, several families from other elementary schools whose students will attend Lewis and Clark as seventh- and eighth-graders chose to have their students attend this year as sixth-graders.
Last year, some special education preschool classes were in three elementary schools. This year all those little ones are at the Career Center’s preschool.
Back at the elementary schools, most space vacated by the sixth grade and preschool filled up. Arrowhead, for example has 463 students this year in grades 1-5.
The largest one-year, K-6 increase was seen at Beartooth where this year’s fall count was 509, compared with 455 in fall 2011.
The district hired 14 part-time classroom aides to assist in the most overcrowded classrooms. It also hired eight additional elementary teachers since last year and reassigned others in efforts to reduce class sizes.
However, with more students enrolled, the number of oversize classes decreased barely 10 percent.
Last year, the district had more than 100 oversize K-2 classes and the State Board of Public Instruction required Billings to provide a plan to correct the situation. Progress has been slow because of money and space constraints, and because enrollment growth varies between school neighborhoods.
As the school board receives studies of demographic trends and facility needs this year, it’s important for the community to remember that Billings is really 30 schools. Planning must occur at the district level, but education is delivered at the individual schools.