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Parent letter cites steps to address crowded kindergarten classes

Questions classroom space

In Dr. Bodie's e-mail response to my letter, she stated that the kindergarten classrooms are 1,200 sq. feet. And, that all the kindergarten classrooms in Arlington meet the MSBA guidelines, specifying that they be between 1,100-1,300 sq. ft. for classes of 18-23 students. She did note that the Stratton School kindergarten classrooms exceeded the guideline, so I assume they are larger than 1,300 sq. ft. However, as I indicated in my letter, the Dallin kindergarten classrooms have, as part of that 1,200 sq. feet, a separate room which houses the children’s cubbies and bathroom. The cubby room and bathroom account for 440 sq. feet of the total 1,200 and therefore the space left for actual teaching and learning is only 760 sq. feet (roughly 37x20.5).

Most, if not all, of the other kindergartners in the district enjoy a learning space that is approximately 45-50 sq. ft./child even with 24 students per class. Research supports 50 sq. ft. of space/child as being optimal for a curriculum, such as Tools of the Mind, that utilizes imaginary or dramatic play. But, at the Dallin School the small instructional space of the Kindergarten rooms only allows for 30 sq. feet/child #there are 25 students in a class.

Using this logic, I assert that in order for the Dallin kindergartners to have equal access to teachers and the curriculum as their kindergarten peers in other Arlington schools do, no more than 15 students should ever be in those classrooms.

Hallway termed alternative

Now, even I will concede 15 is not sustainable given the town's finances, but even 20 children in those rooms is pushing the limits of the space and the teachers' abilities to create an optimal learning environment. Essentially, the point here is that given the inequities in instructional space, formulaic responses to class size issues are unfair. For instance, the district's current position of not creating another kindergarten class unless there will be 20 students in each class is understandable if you prioritize equitable dispersement of staff and financial resources over the creation of equitable learning opportunities for all students in Arlington. We ask that you reprioritize learning resources and opportunities over staffing and financial concerns.

Last year, even with approximately 20-21 students, the teachers were occasionally using the hallway outside their classrooms as a break out space for learning groups. Again, the teachers have asked if they can use the hallway outside of their classrooms and perhaps on a more formalized and frequent basis this year. With 4-5 more students in each class, they most certainly need to be supported in their efforts to reduce safety issues within the classroom and to provide a quieter, more focused learning environment for their students.

However, as a parent and past school building administrator, I was surprised that Dr. Bodie wrote that the teachers are "fortunate" to have the hallway outside their rooms as an alternative space for learning. This is simply not an acceptable option. This just shifts one safety issue, being the overcrowded classroom, for another. When considering fire codes, egress issues, cleanliness, noise and the unfortunate potential of a lockdown situation, we simply cannot accept the hallway as a suitable place for teaching and learning for groups of students on a frequent basis. As it is, those spaces are already are used for one-on-one or small group instruction with learning specialists.

What we are "fortunate" to have is excellent kindergarten teachers and aides. Many of the parents of this year's kindergartners have had older children who have thrived under the tutelage of Ms. Byrne, Ms. Parker and Ms. Carta. They are excellent, veteran teachers. We trust that, in their care, our children will be OK despite the overcrowded classrooms.

Shift the paradigm

However, we collectively worry about the possibility that the Dallin kindergartners who are on IEPs, who have medical needs, who may have undiagnosed auditory processing issues, anxiety or executive functioning vulnerabilities will not thrive in this overcrowded setting. We worry about the student who decides he or she doesn't like school because the teacher isn't able to develop a solid relationship with that child quickly enough because she is spread too thin. We worry that the skills that the Tools of the Mind curriculum professes to teach will not be mastered in this overcrowded setting. Kindergarten is such a formative year. We don't want the overcrowded conditions at the Dallin School to an obstacle for our very-able kindergarten teachers to have to work around or for our children to have to overcome.

So, with this in mind, we are asking the district's leadership and School Committee shift the paradigm of equitable staffing and student numbers as their primary concern, to one of equitable student educational opportunity with regard to accessing quality instruction and educational resources.

Steps to take now

And, with that in mind, we ask that you support the following:

Immediately:

    1. Support, financially and with personnel if necessary, Mr. Dingman in his efforts to create suitable breakout spaces in the already overcrowded Dallin School building. This means such actions as fast-tracking the funds and personnel to build a storage shed behind the school this fall. This would allow us to carve out semiprivate learning spaces from currently used spaces. This may also necessitate the use of short-term storage units and or the purchasing of items to create appropriate learning spaces out of areas that are not designed for such purposes.

    2. That the district leadership and School Committee representatives meet with parents to share what actions and plans are in place to address the enrollment numbers of the kindergarten class and to address this issue on a town-wide basis.

    3. That a contingency plan for additional staff is in place in the FY 2016 budget to address surprise or last-minute student enrollment increases occurring late in the spring and over the summer.

    4. That the formula used to generate the enrollment projections and the sources of data used to generate those numbers be scrutinized to see if there is a more accurate and reliable model.

Steps to take as we go

Over time and ongoing:

    1. The district leadership and School Committee representatives visit the Dallin kindergarten classrooms while such activities as dramatic play and prop construction are occurring so that you see, firsthand, how the smaller class size impacts the delivery of instruction particularly how it impacts the activities core to the Tools of the Mind curriculum.

    2. That a more transparent process be created so that parents can be involved or learn about the district's action and contingency plans with regard to increasing student enrollment.

    3. That if equitable instructional space cannot be created for the 4 classrooms at the Dallin School, you consider altering the student: teacher ratio for those rooms so that the children can receive equitable learning opportunities.

I, personally, thank you for allowing me to share these concerns and recommendations with you. I know that the 43 sets of Dallin kindergarten parents who co-signed our letter to the Superintendent and School Committee members also are appreciative and we all look forward to partnering with you to find solutions to the challenges posed by Dallin School and town-wide increases in student enrollment.


This viewpoint was published Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. Your  comments are welcome at the link below. Please sign your full name.

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