The Courier-News

An elbow-to-elbow start to D300 school year

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

HAMPSHIRE -- It was the first day of school, and in Mrs. Latimer's fourth-grade class, students at Gary D. Wright Elementary School here were busy coming up with team names.

Judith Latimer had grouped her students' desks into clusters, or teams, and each team would be able to earn points during the school year for good behavior, she said. Points mean treats.

Five outgoing boys at the front of the room were the first to announce a title — Team Bob. Teams Awesome, Twizzlers and TNT soon followed.

As they waited for their classmates to finish, Bob members discussed the best parts of being back at school.

"I was excited to meet new friends," said Peter Quiroz, 9, of Pingree Grove.

Monday looked like any other first day back to school at Wright, 1500 Ketchum Road, except for the larger class sizes — 30 students teamed up in Latimer's class, another 30 in a kindergarten class meant to cap at 28.

The one thing that looked different for every student at every grade level as classes started up in Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300 Monday was "class sizes, no doubt. All of our schools have larger class sizes," district spokeswoman Allison Strupeck said.

"No matter how much we've tried to prepare our families, right now we're seeing a lot of frustration and concern from parents," Strupeck said. "We share this frustration with them. There are some parents who are tired of hearing it's a state issue with local impact, but that is the truth."

Other changes

At the end of the 2009-10 school year, transportation was cut for the District 300's preschool, Elgin Community College and Ombudsman Alternative Education programs and restructured for parochial and dual-language students. Bell times changed at the deLacey Family Education Center in Carpentersville so its buses could be shared with other schools. And music and P.E. were cut for the district's regular, half-day kindergarten programs.

Larger class sizes come as the school district let go of 111 teachers last year for budget reasons. And those employee layoffs came as the District 300 Board of Education slashed its budget to make up for about $12.3 million the state of Illinois owes the district in categorical funding.

The maximum number of students in elementary and middle school classrooms jumped up by five, pushing the cap to as high as 37 students in grades 3 to 5, for example. Seven or eight schools already have classes at least one student over their caps, Strupeck said.

Those are the first places District 300 would invest the estimated $1 million it expects to get from legislation passed by Congress last week to fund jobs for teachers, the spokeswoman added. But, she said, the district won't hire any teachers until it gets a final number from the state and it knows when it might get that money.

"We don't know if that's two weeks or two months, and that obviously makes it difficult making staffing decisions," Strupeck said.

Staying flexible

H.D. Jacobs High School in Algonquin, which lost about 20 teachers, had projected the district's largest class size: A German I class maxed out at 56 students. But Ami Engel, Jacobs' associate principal of curriculum and instruction, said the school at 2601 Bunker Hill Drive was able to shuffle schedules so that didn't happen.

"It was lots of hours of moving schedules around to make the puzzle fit," Engel said.

Instead, the high school's largest classes — in foreign languages and math — hover around 45 kids.

That's how many were on the roster in sophomore Laraib Baig's geometry class. Last year, the 15-year-old Lake in the Hills girl said, her classes had 25 or 30 students at most.

"I'm just worried I won't get as much time with the teachers, especially in geometry," Baigs said. "I was freaking out a little bit that there were almost 50 kids in the class. Seriously, I am not good at math."

But lab sections, like freshman biology teacher Anthony Cappello's, have both a teacher's aide and student teacher to make sure students get the time they need with instructors. The 34 students in that classroom Monday outnumbered the available seating, sitting in chairs pulled up to the ends of tables in aisles and leaning against counters in the back of the room.

At Wright, Principal Don Wicker said his staff will work with the concept of flexible grouping to cope with larger class sizes.

That includes taking a class of 37, for example, and moving students into six or seven groups according to mastery in a given subject. That allows a teacher to direct lessons at six or seven basic levels, rather than 37 individual ones, Wicker said.

Focus on goal

The elementary school's namesake, longtime Hampshire Elementary School principal Gary D. Wright, reflected on similar challenges during his 28 years with the district.

"There were a few years with high enrollments when we had class sizes in the 30s," Wright said. "What I told parents and staff in those times was to keep our goal in mind — to provide the best education that we could with what we had. It might be more challenging, but as long as we keep our eyes on goal, everything will work out."

And everything did work out Monday, with the usual first-day-of-school "minor hiccups," according to Strupeck.

The Bobs at Wright agreed going to P.E. class was one good thing about coming back to school. Baigs found and hugged her friends among the "millions" of students in Jacobs' lunchroom, all bemoaning the short summer.

And Shelley Nacke tried to learn the names of 2,350 students and point them to the right classrooms on her first day as principal of Jacobs.

"I will be the first to admit, putting that many in a classroom isn't the best idea, but we do what we have to do," Nacke said.

"Students are resilient. The staff is dedicated. The students will learn."