The first Grade Center committee meeting was held earlier this week, and a report was given at Thursday’s Altus School Board meeting. The idea of Altus Schools switching their elementary schools to Grade Centers, is due in part, because of a decline in student enrollment, as well as a decline in state funding.
Superintendent Roger Hill, first addressed the Board on the matter at the June 8 board meeting. He presented district enrollment and financial data that shows the decline in student enrollment, as well as a decline in funding. Hill stated that, when a school begins to have two or fewer classes per grade level, it becomes an economic issue.
WHY TALK ABOUT GRADE CENTERS?
“With funding becoming more scarce, it is imperative to be good stewards of our finances,” said Hill. “We have been good stewards, with a healthy carryover for a number of years, and want to stay ahead of the issues at hand – what is in the best interest of our students – and the greatest efficiency – and get the most out of our taxpayers dollars.”
He suggested to the members of the Board, that Altus Schools start researching and planning to address the decline in student enrollment for the 2016-2017 school year. One option would be grade level centers, placing two grades per building.
At Thursday’s board meeting, Hill said that going to grade centers would save on a variety of items, such as, eliminating empty classrooms, paying for unnecessary utilities and more. The plan would be to close the Eugene Field location that currently houses Bulldog Academy. With the new plan, one of the current elementary schools would assume Bulldog Academy.
WHAT KIND OF NUMBERS ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
“When you look at numbers and history, I think it is prudent that we research this,” added Board President, Debora Phillips. (A complete list of book balance history from the 2006-2007 school year through the present for both general fund and building, can be found on the Altus Times website. You can easily access the documents by scanning the QR code in this story, or by going online to http://altustimes.com/news/900/funding-factors-for-altus-public-schools. You can also find comparison class totals for all the elementary schools, as well as the schools’ enrollment history from the 2000-2001 school year through this year.)
WHO IS ON THE GRADE CENTER COMMITTEE?
At the July 14 board meeting, Hill presented a list of administrators, teachers, and parents from Roosevelt, Sunset, Washington and Will Rogers elementary schools, to serve on the Grade Centers Committee. The Board approved the committee unanimously and the first committee meeting was held on Wednesday, Aug 12. Representatives for the District include; Cindy Allen, Diane Chowning, Nate Covington, Amanda Davis, Roger Hill and Roe Worbes. For Roosevelt Elementary; Cheryl Anderson, Chanet Huckaby, and Mike Munn. For Sunset Elementary; Renee Long, Jeanne Herring and Kim Pickett. For Washington Elementary; Ken Kenner, Amanda Roberson, and Dawn Buentello. For Will Rogers Elementary; Esther Reyes, Leslie Conrad and Stacy Clothier.
HOW WILL THE GRADES BE DIVIDED UP?
There are currently five elementary schools in Altus. Rivers Elementary, located on Altus Air Force Base, will remain untouched. The other elementary schools are Roosevelt, Sunset, Washington and Will Rogers. At this point, the discussion is to put two grades per school: Pre-K and Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade, and 3rd and 4th grade. That would only necessitate three school buildings. One of the existing elementary schools would then house Bulldog Academy, which in the past has been located at the old Eugene Field Elementary School site. It was said that the Eugene Field building is in need of a lot of repairs.
“It would just make sense to move Bulldog Academy to a facility that is in better shape and not being used,” said Superintendent Hill.
Whichever combined grades look to be the biggest will most likely be housed in the largest school buildings. Roosevelt and Will Rogers are the two largest buildings, and the Pre-K/Kindergarten and 1st/2nd Grade look to be the largest groupings of students. The smallest school site is Washington.
HOW MANY ELEMENTARY STUDENTS DO WE HAVE ANYWAY?
According to figures provided by Altus Schools, there are 182 Pre-K, 251 Kindergartners, 240 in 1st grade, 247 in 2nd grade, 224 in 3rd grade, and 247 in 4th grade.
“With these kind of numbers,” said Hill, “if we were doing Grade Centers this year, we would have 4 or 5 less teachers. That would be a savings right now of about $250,000.”
Hill added that they want to be consistent across the board. If we have 26 to 28 students per class, it will take less teachers.” By his calculations, that is about two less teachers per grade.
HOW MUCH MONEY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
At this point, all of the factors related to possibly going to Grade Centers are subject to discussion. Nothing has been set in stone, and there are a lot of meetings still to be held. Not just committee meetings, but meetings will be held with teachers and parents at the individual school sites later this fall.
What Superintendent Hill says it all boils down to is a savings of between $350,000 and $500,000. That number could change depending on a multitude of factors, from student enrollment numbers, funding from the state, and the reduction of the number of teachers and support staff due to the change.
“Closing one of the schools will save one administrative salary, two custodian jobs, a cafeteria manager and two to three cooks, as well as utilities and general maintenance,” said Hill. “When we start looking at the number of classes, based on the number of students for each site, we will also be looking at a reduction of six or seven teachers. There’s another cost saving for the district.”
DO WE REALLY NEED TO SAVE THIS MUCH MONEY?
Simply put, yes. Although $350,000 to $500,000 is a lot of savings, if projections stay the way they are, Hill said next year’s shortfall in state funding could be as much as $850,00. “We have been looking at this and studying it for some time,” said Hill. “I think when you look at where we are headed, it’s time to make some kind of a change.”
WHAT OTHER OPTIONS DO WE HAVE?
Hill said that going to Grade Centers is not the only option, but one that they feel would work better and save more money for the district. Other options could include going to neighborhood schools – eliminating giving people the option of where to attend school. They would just go to the school closest to where they live. Another option, could be to leave at least one school, in addition to Rivers (probably Sunset Elementary), as it is and make the rest of the elementary schools Grade Centers.
WHAT DO THE TEACHERS THINK ABOUT THIS?
Hill said that the feedback he has received from his principals is all positive.
“If there is any negative feelings about going to grade centers, I have not heard it from my principals or teachers. As a matter of fact, the preliminary comments from staff meetings has been very positive,” said Hill.
One of the things that Hill said the teachers like about the Grade Center idea is that they will have more support, and feel less isolated from their fellow grade teachers.
Jeanne Herring, a teacher at Sunset Elementary, said, “As a teacher in a building with over 500 students, I daily recognize the need for our district to make some changes. I am grateful to sit on the committee to explore ways in which Altus Schools can reduce the overcrowding at my school and the lower enrollment in other buildings. Our goal is to do what is best for all students, while being good stewards of the district finances during the budget shortfall we are experiencing. I want the families of Altus to know that I love this town and I will work diligently to research and support what is the best decision for our towns children. ”
Amanda Roberson, a 3rd grade at Washington Elementary said, “The general feel after the first committee meeting was that everyone simply wants what’s best for our students. The district seems interested in hearing the pros, as well as the challenges that would come with moving into grade level centers. I believe this may be our best option and I’m all for what benefits our community and school district as a whole.”
Hill said that they have only had one committee meeting on the subject, but it was a good one. The next meeting will include Elk City Superintendent, Buddy Wood, and staff who currently have Grade Centers. They will talk to the group about their experiences to date after the switch, and answer any questions they may have.
This fall, the committee will hold individual meetings at the current school sites and talk with parents and teachers to get a better idea of what is needed, any concerns they may have, and what may need to be done before, and if, the change to Grade Centers happen.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PROS & CONS?
Initial discussion about Altus elementary schools going to Grade Centers have generated various pros and cons.
On the “Pro” side, aside from the obvious financial savings to the district, they will be able to balance class sizes across the grades; have better instructional leaders – more knowledgeable working with curriculum; unifying students and community earlier – social equality; have greater flexibility – easier to shift personnel to needs; great teacher collaboration with grade levels with teachers in one grade being in the same school; there will be a better balance of ELL, IEP, discipline issues, etc.; consistency with standards being taught, expectations, in-service, collaboration; and being able to close the Bulldog Academy in its current location to save funds before extensive renovation and repairs are done.
On the “Con” side, there will be additional costs for bus routes, drivers, fuel, and maintenance to vehicles; bus routes will have to be staggered, and school start times will have to be adjusted; parents may not feel as involved if they have more than one child enrolled in multiple Grade Centers because of school carnivals, parties, etc.; there is always a resistance to change – breaking tradition; and the schools will lose the Little Olympics – an event where the different schools compete against each in athletic events.
Challenges to having Grade Centers include staff for special needs at multiple centers (IEP, ELL, ED, Title I students); maintaining levels of enrollment – addressing parent concerns; moving desks, chairs, textbooks, supplies and staff; philosophical differences in schools – Great Expectations and RTI; placing staff in the right assignments; high anxiety – the unknown and anticipation of staff and administrative assignments; collaboration from grade to grade – vertical collaboration; trust from one Grade Center to another – retention issues; and Title I plans and utilization of federal funds.
For more information, visit http://altustimes.com/news/900/funding-factors-for-altus-public-schools
Reach Michael Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org