By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Some 45 students, parents, teachers and administrators attended a meeting Tuesday night at Seward Middle School to learn about challenges that a small, dwindling student population presents, and to discuss ideas being proposed by school administrators to meet those challenges. Presenting a united front, Seward Middle School Principal Jason Bickling, Seward High School Principal Trevan Walker, and Seward-Elementary Principal David Kingsland, said they had worked closely together on tallying the impacts of each proposal, and now they want the public’s response.
The greatest problem for the middle school stems from the fact that there are only about 88 students enrolled in seventh and eighth grade at the middle school this year, Bickling said. There were 98 when he was hired. Only 80 students are expected to attend next year, and 76 in the following year, according to district projections. After that, the numbers are expected to go up to 90, and then down to as low as 71, before rising to 105 in 2019-2020.
Lower student numbers means fewer teachers and specialists in the school, Bickling said. That’s why he, and the other two principals are considering moving the sixth grade class from the elementary school into the middle school. Contrary to any rumors that might be going around town, nothing firm has been decided however, Bickling said. Nor is the administration in any hurry to rush into changes before considering all the ramifications.
Having three grades in the middle school would be the ideal number for that school, Bickling said. That’s because of the formula used by the district to allocate FTE’s or Full Time Educators, and specialists, which is based on the school’s student population. The effect of a decreased enrollment in the current year was that the number of electives offered was reduced to four this year from eight offered last year, Bickling said. Also, he said, there was no band program offered there this year, and teachers had to fill in due to the lack of a librarian. The school offered one oversized combined-grade P.E. class this year, which was a challenge. And while volleyball and basketball programs remained healthy, the Nordic Ski season was cancelled as the team didn’t meet the minimum number of participants. The boys soccer team also had to forfeit all of its games due to lack of players, and could only scrimmage other teams by travelling to the other schools.
In fact, there wasn’t really a band program offered there last year, although middle school students were allowed to attend early morning band practice at the elementary school. And the middle school has not had a librarian position, although teacher Laura Beck, who retired last year, helped out there. The high school, with four grades, does not have a librarian position either.
Next year, the middle school expects to lose even more students, including some additional certified staff time, Bickling said. There may not be enough FTE’s or “full time employed” teachers to provide all the required core instruction, so additional shifting will have to take place, Bickling said. At least one teacher may have to teach outside of their particular content area, such as a social studies teacher teaching math, and he may have to teach classes too. Meanwhile, the electives may have to be embedded into the other classes, rather than offered as stand-alone units. A few of the teachers present mentioned that most of them actually were already credentialed in more than one core subject.
If it lost its sixth grade class next year, Seward Elementary School would automatically lose half a teaching position; either the music teacher, librarian or its P.E. teacher, Kingsland said. That’s because the numbers of student left would not be enough to sustain that part-time specialist position. Also, a proportional number of full time staff members (probably two teachers) would move up to the middle school. On the pro side, Kingsland said, the ratio of students to the school secretary, nurse and principal would improve at the elementary school, although not at the middle school.
Other proposals raised included moving the ninth grade class down to the middle school, or moving the middle school population down into the elementary school. The latter is an idea that would cost the Seward Schools $410,000, because it would mean vacating the district’s newest building that it is still paying for, Bickling said. He was told that by Dave Jones, the assistant school superintendent, and buildings administrator, he said. While such a move would save on custodian pay, not all the teachers would be employed, and nor would the secretary, he said.
By moving the ninth grade down to the middle school, the middle school would gain two additional full- time “highly qualified” teachers in the core subject areas, and student elective opportunities would improve. But middle school sports teams such as soccer or skiing would not improve as the ninth grade athletes still would compete at a high school level, they said.
The high school would lose roughly a quarter of its students, so it would also lose its athletic director, creating additional duties that few busy teachers would want to assume, Walker said. Also, the master class schedule of offerings would be reduced to 33 ½ classes from its current 45.
The discussion seems to have focused primarily on crunching numbers, and staff considerations, while not so much consideration has been discussed on the effects of the proposed changes on the lives and learning of the students themselves, said parent Dave Hamner. “We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time talking about equations. Not about the learning environment, and the impacts to it. And ultimately that’s what we should be doing,” he said.
Research is available on the impacts on learning, behavior, socialization, and other issues by having sixth grade students in middle school, and keeping the ninth grade in middle school, a concerned teacher said. He too hoped that those considerations would not be left out.
The schools will issue an online survey to all parents, students and community members to garner their views on the information presented, , the principals said. Although quite a few middle and elementary students attended, none ventured an opinion in that setting.
Parent Karin Sturdy questioned how student enrollment projections are made, and whether they truly reflect the trends in the community, such as the growth expected to occur in town if new businesses come here, and also if they take into account that many young people are moving to town, and there’s also a robust baby boom. Nobody predicted the unexpectedly large Kindergarten class this year of 60 plus students, folks said.
Lynn Hohl, the area’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board Representative, and Mark Fraad, an Seward El teacher and Region III National Educators Association Director, both were extremely concerned about the funding reductions that look likely statewide. Fraad said the proposed $2 billion annual decrease in state oil tax revenues would likely mean reductions for the state’s education budget. The governor and senate majority also are favoring bills such as continued flat-funding of the base-student allotment for the fourth year in a row, a new voucher program for students attending private and religious schools, the possible loss of teacher tenure. “It’s frightening,” Fraad said.
The Seward principals may base their plans on existing “FTE” formulas for acquiring teachers and specialists, but if state lawmakers make the expected changes to education funding, Seward schools could face great reductions in staffing and programs not yet anticipated, Fraad said.
The KPB district’s last best offer on negotiated teachers contracts also would require a higher level of funding by the district by than formerly anticipated, Hohl added. The KPB Board of Education also is considering increasing the current pupil teacher ratio. She urged parents to attend the Seward Site Based Council meeting next Thursday evening, at the high school where district administrators will present their preliminary budget proposed for next year. Seward Site Based Council also will discuss the various proposals at its meeting (tonight) Thursday night, Feb 14, in the Elementary School library, and also at its March meeting.
KPBSD administrators will be in Seward next Tuesday night, Feb 19th, at 6 pm at SHS library to present its preliminary budget to the Site Council and all interested Seward citizens.