Aides will ease burdens in kindergarten program

Aides will ease burdens in kindergarten program by M. Jill Karolevitz A combination of gentle prodding and sharp criticism has prompted the Vermillion School Board to advertise for two part-time aides for its kindergarten program.

The board voted unanimously Sept. 24 to fill the two positions at a cost of $7,000 to the district. Once hired, the aides will each work 19 hours per week to help ease the burden on the five kindergarten teachers who have 109 students between them. Interns from The University of South Dakota School of Education, along with student teachers and parent volunteers, are also expected to assist the teachers.

Parents of kindergarten students asked the school board to take action on what they perceive as overcrowding in the kindergarten classrooms. But according to Superintendent Robert Mayer, the large kindergarten class size was a surprise this year.

"We have five sections of kindergarten � four classes with 22 students and one with 21," he said. "We had 94 last year and 102 attended kindergarten roundup this spring. But the school year opened with 112 students. It's now down to 109. I don't think we could have anticipated that large of a number."

Lisa Swanson, a spokesperson for concerned kindergarten parents, asked that the board "leave no stone unturned in seeking a solution to this problem," she said. Swanson also noted that young children perform better in school with smaller class sizes.

"In the Vermillion kindergarten classrooms this year, 5-year-olds are finding themselves in a 1:22 teacher/child ratio," she said. "In 1996, the National Association for the Education of Young Children published this position statement on policies they believe are essential for achieving developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs: 'Even the most well-qualified teacher cannot individualize instruction and

adequately supervise too large a group of young children. An acceptable adult-child ratio for 4- and 5-year-olds is two adults with no more than 20 children. Younger children require much smaller groups.'"

Swanson also questioned why the federal Class Size Reduction grant, totaling $85,000, was not applied to the kindergarten situation this year.

"The federal CSR grant was written last spring when kindergarten roundup indicated 102 students," Mayer said. "We did not see the need to apply any of those funds to reducing kindergarten class sizes at that time. The need was elsewhere."

Mayer outlined five options the school board could consider as parents voiced their concerns about the teacher/student ratio:

1. Do nothing;

2. Provide two part-time aides;

3. Do a "fruit basket upset" with staff, shifting current teachers around to add another kindergarten section (which would have legal ramifications due to contract issues);

4. Hire a new teacher at a cost of about $35,000;

5. Go back to half-day kindergarten.

Lively discussion followed Mayer's option summary and Swanson's presentation.

Lynn Riley, the mother of a kindergarten student, sharply criticized the school board for not maintaining its goal of smaller class sizes as the all-day kindergarten program was in its planning stages in the spring of 2000.

"When you said you were going to all-day kindergarten, you promised 16 to 18 students per class, but that's not what has happened," she said. "My daughter should be getting more quality time with the teacher, but she's not. It's creating stress for her and it's not an enriching experience for her. She's not gaining from this. It's not preparing her for first grade.

"It's unconscionable, this is a terrible situation that you have put the students in," Riley continued. "Something needs to be done soon."

Tom Craig, school board president, noted that the school district "always works very hard to keep the student/teacher ratio as low as it can," he said. "We accept your criticism, and you have justifiable reason for it. But the decision we made (to go with five sections of kindergarten instead of six) was based upon the information we had at the time.

"Obviously that didn't work out," Craig continued. "Right now we're concerned about dealing with improving the situation, but at the same time we have to take into consideration our budget restraints. I would recommend hiring two aides, using the student teachers we will have and working with parent volunteers to help ease the problem."

Riley noted her disappointment in the board for not hiring a new teacher.

"We believed you were going to hire a new teacher if you needed, one," she said. "We bought into that idea. We thought the district was putting our kids first."

Craig said the school district has serious financial concerns due to state control over revenue for education, thus hiring a new teacher is not an option.

"We have already made budget cuts and we're looking at doing more in the future," he said. "When we talk about money, we cannot control our revenue. The state controls that for us. All we can do is control our expenditures."

"We cannot afford a new teacher," added school board member Nick Merrigan. "We had to make $200,000 in cuts this year and that's just the beginning. We think we're being more than lenient in spending $7,000 for two aides."

Craig asked the kindergarten parents for their tolerance as the board works within its means to solve the problem.

"You have to remember, this is the best education we can provide as we live within our money constraints," he said.

Elementary principal Bob Bowker also spoke to the parents.

"I hate to see parents and school board members at odds," he said. "But I commend you (parents) for coming in and the board is to be commended for caring about this. Our kids are too important not to stay positive in trying to make something work. But you have to understand that this is a difficult situation."

Despite financial constraints, Craig maintained that the school board always "attempts to keep in mind what's best for the students," he said.

"I would hope that the parents find some comfort with this," added school board member Floyd Boschee after the motion to hire the aides was passed. "Your input is valuable because these are your children and you trust us with their education. We hope you will trust us with this one because we're going to try to make the situation better."

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