Portland schools confront unexpectedly large elementary class sizes

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PORTLAND — Increasing enrollments have prompted the School Committee to explore developing a formal policy on class sizes.

Last week, the committee approved an additional elementary school teacher and hired three education technicians as short-term relief for what school officials believe is a developing long-term problem: over-enrolled classes.

There are currently 20 elementary classes throughout the city that each have more than 23 students enrolled. Some of the largest class sizes are at Hall Elementary School, where fifth-grade classes have more than 26 students. 

The new elementary teacher will run a combined fourth- and fifth-grade classroom at Hall. Meanwhile, two ed techs have been hired to help at Longfellow Elementary, and one ed tech has been assigned to Presumpscot Elementary. 

School Committee member Marnie Morrione, who leads the policy committee, said the district must look at a variety of ways to keep class sizes at a manageable level.

“We need to take a closer look at this,” Morrione said. “Last year, everyone thought the increase in enrollment was a spike. Now, the overall trajectory seems to be going higher.”

There are essentially two methods by which class sizes can be reduced: hiring more teachers or redistricting students. Each has its pitfalls; hiring more teachers would be an unwelcome expense, while redistricting is typically a difficult and painful process for parents and children.

Morrione said that adding classes and full-time teachers simply isn’t an option in some schools.

“Longfellow doesn’t even have an extra room to add an elementary class,” she said.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. had originally proposed reassigning an elementary school teacher from Peaks Island to a mainland school to deal with the class sizes. In a letter to islanders, Morse said there were about 60 new immigrant students yet to be assigned to schools.

Ultimately, Morse did not reassign the teacher. But over-enrolled classrooms are expected to be a problem throughout the year and beyond.

“We are still placing new students in our schools for the upcoming school year, and that is likely to result in more large classes,” Morse said in a press release. “Going forward, we need to adjust our staffing to ensure that all students in our district are treated equitably.”

Morrione said there is currently no formal policy about class sizes, which was a topic at the School Committee’s August retreat at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. She said the policy committee is awaiting more guidance from  Morse before deciding how to proceed.

Depending on the scope of the work, Morrione said the entire School Committee may have to participate in the discussions, especially if new teachers or redistricting are required.

As for paying for the short-term solution, the new elementary teacher will cost $46,000 and will be paid for by savings generated from lower-than-anticipated insurance costs. The ed techs, at a cost of $102,000, will be funded by money previously budgeted for a world language coordinator and accounting software, which will be purchased later this year. 

Morrione said that curriculum development for an elementary world language program will continue through the World Language Task Force led by Assistant Superintendent Jill Blackwood, rather than a new coordinator.

“No one on the School Committee wanted to see (the World Language program) go away,” she said. “We worked incredibly hard to get that in (the budget).”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net