County schools inching toward overcrowding

Published 7:25 pm Tuesday, May 15, 2018

School patrons, teachers, administrators voicing concerns

By Elizabeth Pattman

Staff writer

Parents, teachers and administrators have raised concerns about schools being at or near capacity, particularly in the northern end of Isle of Wight County, as new housing developments spring up. 

While some class sizes at Smithfield high and middle schools and Westside and Carrollton elementary schools range from 12 to 50 or more, the schools appear to be in compliance for most core courses, but some elective courses are over state guidelines. 

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Westside Elementary School was 43 students over capacity as of January, Smithfield High and Smithfield Middle have about 40 spots open and Carrollton Elementary has 70, according to a March presentation by Amy Ring, Isle of Wight County director of planning and zoning. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

The Virginia Department of Education has standards for class size limits, but it does not have specific standards regarding school building capacities. Instead, the agency provides “detailed guidance to school planners, architects and educators for the planning and design of local public school facilities,” according to Charles Pyle, spokesman for the VDOE. These guidelines include recommendations for classroom square footage, necessary acreage for school sites, minimum play areas required and more, but do not provide a limit to how many students can be placed into one building.

Westside, Carrollton Elementary and Smithfield High and Middle are the most at-risk for being at or over capacity once new housing developments in the area are completed, according to Ring’s presentation. Meanwhile, the southern end’s schools are either at or below capacity and face less risk following development, said Isle of Wight County schools spokesperson Lynn Briggs.

To experience the level of cramped conditions in some of the county’s schools, Briggs provided a tour of Smithfield High and Westside Elementary school classrooms, which are some of the division’s most crowded.

While class sizes at the high school range from 12 to 40, many class sizes hover in the mid-20s. The core curriculum courses of English, math, social studies and science typically have class sizes in the mid-to-upper 20s, according to Briggs. 

Many career and technical education courses are required by the state to be capped at 20, she said, so they typically result in the smallest class sizes. 

Elective courses, such as the school’s theater courses, usually have the largest class sizes, nearing 40 students. Physical education, driver’s education and health courses also have larger class sizes, typically around 35, she said. 

According to the standards of quality set by VDOE, a 21-to-one student teacher ratio must be the standard in all high schools, school-wide. This ratio applies to all instructional personnel across all courses, according to Pyle. 

Briggs said the Smithfield High School ratio is currently 12-to-one.

Westside’s classrooms are similar, with a fourth grade average class size of 24, a fifth grade average class size of 26 to 27 and a sixth grade average class size of 26 to 27, according to Westside Elementary School Principal Marsha Cale. Those averages are for core curriculum classes, she said. Elective classes, particularly physical education, can be as large as 50 or more, according to Cale. 

The VDOE’s standards of quality indicate that class sizes for the fourth, fifth and sixth grades should not exceed 35, with a student to teacher ratio of 25-to-one.

Currently, there are 12 fourth grade, 11 fifth grade and 10 sixth grade classes in the school. According to Cale, the fluctuations in those numbers can make a big difference in crowding levels. Last year, for example, Cale said there was a much larger sixth grade group that took up 13 classrooms.

Some of the high school’s teachers commented on the difficulties created by having large class sizes. 

High school biology teacher Jessica Gateau, for example, said it can be hard to run labs and hands-on activities with so many students to watch over. Others mentioned grading, keeping track of so many students and time constraints as challenges.

“I think I would be able to devote more time to the experience if I had smaller class sizes,” said Smithfield High School theater teacher Sherilynn Castel, who oversees a class of 40 students in the auditorium. 

“Because I have so many students, it takes longer to get through performances. It takes longer to get through rehearsals. A lot of times projects have been drawn out and drawn out, whereas they wouldn’t take this long with a smaller class,” she said.

The actual physical space of the classroom is also a consideration. During the walk-through at Westside, several classes had students spilled out into the hallway working on projects. The high school showed a similar experience.

“It’s the only way you can get elbow room around here,” said Cale.

Briggs also explained that Westside utilizes so-called flexible furniture that has wheels attached and can be configured in a number of ways to suit the needs and size constraints of the classroom. 

Beyond the classroom, hallway constraints are also an issue.

“Imagine 800 students walking through here at one time. It happens every day,” said Cale, describing the narrow hallways. Briggs has also heard from students at the high school and has personally experienced the between-class rush and cramped hallways.

There are several factors that come into play when establishing class sizes, said Briggs.

 For example, class sizes at the high school that take place in the first block of the day usually have larger class sizes, she said. This is because students who leave to attend the Governor’s schools must get their classes in before they depart, so class sizes must increase to accommodate their schedules, she said. 

At Westside, administrators also make special efforts to control class size. Cale explained that younger learners require more hands-on attention, so the fourth grade classes are typically kept smaller than the sixth grade classes.

“If I had every class in here at 23- or 24-to-one, I’d be happy,” said Cale. “Twenty to one isn’t possible. The staffing you would need in order to make that happen is a bit much.”

To compensate for current crowding at some of the schools, the school division earlier this year requested that mobile classrooms be added at Westside for the coming school year. Those mobile classrooms have since been removed from the county’s budget.

Instead, the school officials looked at its available space and found five extra classrooms in Hardy Elementary School, said Briggs. 

Rather than use mobile classrooms at Westside, the division will instead keep rising fourth graders at Hardy rather than send them to Westside, she said.

Rising fourth graders at Carrollton Elementary School will still move on to Westside, Briggs said. 

Briggs said the change was part of the parent-led committee and that the school division has not heard any complaints so far from parents. 

Looking into the future, however, residents and teachers at a recent Board of Supervisors budget public hearing were concerned about future growth and its impact on the school population. 

With the housing developments that have already begun construction in 2017, there are an estimated 279 more students expected to enter the school division upon their completion, according to Ring. That would put several schools over capacity, with Westside being the worst affected at 116 students over capacity, according to her presentation. A new study commissioned by the school division indicates that the number of new students from these developments will be even higher.

At the same time, building a new school to alleviate some of the crowding could take years, Briggs said. 

“The school division has been working with a committee of community members to develop a long range facility plan,” said Briggs in an email. “Any revisions to the current plan will then be shared with our School Board and updated recommendations would be presented in the fall of 2018 for inclusion in the revised CIP through the county.”

Community members can hear these plans at two long-range facility planning meetings being held May 29 at Westside Elementary and May 31 at Windsor High, both at 6 p.m.  {/mprestriction}