District 300 students return to larger classes - some in the mid-40s

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

More than 20,000 students packed their bags and headed out the door Monday morning for the first day of class in Community Unit District 300 schools.

District 300 started school earlier this year so students would have more time to prepare for spring assessments and students in upper grades would be able to take final exams before winter break.

It was the first time in several years that the district was not forced to start late because of major construction projects at district schools.

But while students won't find dust in their classrooms this fall, they will find more classmates. Due to layoffs during the 2009-10 school year, the school district is operating with the equivalent of 114 fewer teachers this year. And that is leading to bigger class sizes this year across many grades and subjects.

The effect of the state's budget crunch is evident at Algonquin's Jacobs High School, where some classes have more than 40 students. One biology classroom that is normally capped at 24 students had almost 40 on Monday.

"They actually have to do science experiments in here," said Ami Engel, associate principal for curriculum and instruction. "They're going to be doing dissections when they're standing shoulder to shoulder."

It was the same story for Spanish classrooms with more than 40 desks wedged into the space that normally would accommodate 30.

"We tried to keep the core (classes) as small as we could and make the electives bigger," Engel said, referring to classes such as math and English that are tested on state assessments.

Superintendent Ken Arndt and Associate Superintendent Michael Bregy addressed the larger class sizes and other effects of budget cuts in a video address to 3,000 employees last week.

"This school year, all of us will do more with less," said Bregy, who will replace Arndt as superintendent next year. But he added: "Our school district has pulled through tough times before, and we will do so again."

Despite the close quarters in some classrooms, there were still the excitement and jitters of the first day. Monday was Jacobs Principal Shelley Nacke's first day with students. Bregy was Jacobs' principal before the board elevated him to Arndt's second-in-command in preparation for his ascension to the district's top post.

The first day was a learning experience for Nacke as well as her students.

"It's going good," Nacke said. "I'm meeting students and visiting classes. Kids ask me where their class is and I'm like, 'It's down that way. Ask another person with a gray (Jacobs) shirt.'"

District 300 officials hope to reduce the size of their largest classes using money from the jobs bill President Obama signed last week. The district could get about $1 million in new funding, officials estimate.