School Officials Struggle To Maintain Equitable Elementary Class Sizes

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Monomoy Regional School District

Chatham Elementary School.

CHATHAM – Balancing the student population between Chatham and Harwich elementary schools will likely require changes in the Monomoy School District's regional agreement.

Despite efforts to attract more Harwich students to the Chatham school in order to bolster its numbers, there will be one fewer kindergarten class in Chatham next fall, and one more class in Harwich.

The adjustment will maintain equitable class size in the two schools, with 17 pupils per in each of Chatham's two kindergarten classes and Harwich's six. It appears, however, that “voluntary redistricting,” or encouraging Harwich parents to send their students to the smaller Chatham school, isn't enough to sustain those numbers, according to school officials.

And the trend doesn't bode well for the future. For one thing, Harwich Elementary School doesn't have enough space for six sections of kindergarten through grade four, said Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter. If class size is to remain equitable, the school committee must wrestle with the question of “can an elementary school get too small for the kids, and can an elementary school get too large for the good of the kids,” he said.

On April 13 the committee reviewed a proposed change to the language of the regional agreement between Harwich and Chatham that governs the operation of the school district which would allow officials to reassign students to a school outside of their town of residents in order to maintain equitable class sizes. That action would be done upon the recommendation of the superintendent and would be subject to a vote by the school committee.

At the root of the issue is the continued drop in student population in Chatham. Next year's kindergarten class, for instance, will have 34 students, while Harwich will have 104 kids. Three Harwich students have signed up to attend kindergarten in Chatham, despite efforts by school officials to recruit more through intra-district school choice.

Prior to regionalization, Chatham's smaller class sizes attracted more school choice students from Harwich to the elementary school. Carpenter recalled his daughter's Chatham Elementary School class having 14 students while at the same time Harwich Elementary class sizes ranged from 18 to 20. One option to make Chatham more attractive to Harwich families, suggested Committee Chairman Brian Widegren, might be to allow class sizes to once again be smaller in Chatham. That could have staffing implications, noted committee member Terry Russell. If Harwich class size tops 18, additional classroom aids are required. Another possibility, said Carpenter, is to combine early education classes, such as kindergarten and first grade, but that is not allowed under the existing regional agreement.

Committee member Karen Ryder said she's been told by parents that class size isn't the only factor in deciding which school their child should attend. Each school has its own culture, she said.

“They're not exactly the same culture from one school to the other, and they never will be, and that's fine. For some parents, they like the Chatham culture,” Ryder said.

Another factor is transportation. Of a dozen Harwich families that expressed interest in sending their children to Chatham Elementary, seven said they needed bus transportation.

“We would have to reroute buses around town,” Carpenter said. New bus routing software the district is looking at could provide a tool to visualize where students live geographically and help determine if it makes sense to redistrict elementary grades.

Staff has been notified that next fall, Harwich will have six kindergarten classes while Chatham will have two, said Chatham Principal Robin Millen. The entire regional agreement is undergoing its first five-year review, and any changes must be approved by town meetings in both communities, noted Widegren, adding that he expects a “tremendous amount of input” from residents of both towns regarding changes to the agreement.

Carpenter endorsed committee member Sharon Stout's proposal to bring community members together this summer and fall to brainstorm ways to address the elementary population issue.

“It gives us a chance to rethink what the appropriate elementary model should be for our district,” he said. “It needs to be a number of voices.”