Portland's Reiche School feels growing pains

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PORTLAND — Unlike most other schools in the district, enrollment at the Howard C. Reiche Community School is projected to increase in coming years

Concerned about possible classroom overcrowding, some parents have sought for the district to hire more teachers at Reiche. While the school’s Parent Teacher Organization is on board with the district’s proposed $102.8 million budget for the 2016 fiscal year, the group remains wary.

Members of the PTO voiced their concerns about class size during Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk’s March 10 presentation of his budget proposal. The PTO had hoped to convince Caulk to include two new teacher hires in the budget, as the elementary school’s enrollment of about 400 is projected to put up to 25 students in each class.

Enrollment at Reiche has increased by 112 students since 2008-2009, a 32 percent increase, according to the PTO.

Caulk met with PTO members on March 11, and the group’s president, Leah Whalen, said he assured them the issue of class size was on his radar and that he was working on a solution.

“We offered to try to help any way we could,” Whalen said. “Our takeaway was if his budget goes through we will see relief.”

At a March 12 Finance Committee meeting, School Board member Laurie Davis said Caulk also promised that teachers could be moved from schools with lower enrollment to more crowded ones like Reiche if the need arose.

“But (that teacher) will be someone certified to teach that level,” Davis said.

Whalen said passing the budget would mean Caulk would “have the means to provide us with more teachers.”

Caulk was not immediately available for comment at press time.

Kevin Brewster, a lead teacher at Reiche, said teachers there have been closely watching enrollment all year. He said they asked Caulk last fall for a new teacher hire, but that “was not going to happen budgetarily.” Instead, the school received a new educational technician.

Whalen said parents are “optimistic” their needs will be met, but admitted that the “modest” tax increase the budget calls for might be off-putting to some. Even if approved by the School Board, the budget would still have to be OK’d by the City Council.

“I know there’s certainly some constituents who feel any increase is not warranted,” Whalen said.

Staffing for projected enrollment at Reiche is difficult, Brewster said, because of the school’s “transient population.”

“The numbers you have in June may or might not be the same in September, you never know who will move or come in, and this year all the kids came back and we had big classes,” Brewster said.

Brewster said Reiche usually sees attrition through the grades; students who come in at kindergarten or first grade don’t always stick with the school to fifth grade. He said the neighborhood tends to attract a lot of new families who “branch out” later.

This year has not seen that level of attrition, he explained, and as a result, teachers have had to be creative in scheduling and managing classes. Still, challenges remain.

“I guess the issue is philosophically Reiche’s model is based on relationships; kids will be successful students when they have deeper relationships with adults in their lives … 24 to 25 kids makes it harder to manage and make those connections,” Brewster said.

Whalen said the next steps will be to work with Caulk as he meets with other PTOs on the budget later this month. She said the Reiche PTO is happy to meet with the others to discuss overcrowding issues.

Meanwhile, Brewster said teachers appreciate the participation of parents in the budgeting process.

“We’re thrilled our parents are concerned and are advocating for students. That relationship between parents and schools is a big part of making a successful elementary school, and we’re all waiting for the budget process to go through,” he said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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The Howard C. Reiche Community School, at 166 Brackett St., Portland, is one of the few elementary schools in the city expecting an increase in enrollment over the next few years, prompting concerns about classrooom overcrowding.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.