Helena Public Schools is facing a rise next year in the number of children entering kindergarten, exceeding the state standard of 20 students in classrooms in 10 of its 11 elementary schools.
The increase, already visible in enrollment figures, comes as the district is under scrutiny from the state Office of Public Instruction for having class sizes with too many students in the past.
The numbers, as anticipated by the district, are likely to change, according to district Superintendent Kent Kultgen, but every elementary school except Central is expected to be more than the state standard for accreditation of 20 students per kindergarten class. Across the district, most kindergarten classes in 2013-2014 will have 21 or 22 students.
Broadwater Elementary is on track for the largest kindergarten classes, with 46 students already registered. If that number sticks, Broadwater will have two classes of 23 students each, and para-educators in each for 4.5 hours daily.
The district has considered about 510 to 530 kindergartners “normal,” Kultgen said. It had 570 in the school year just ended and expects more in 2013-2014.
Kultgen said the rise in kindergartners is believed to be a one-time bump, as happens occasionally in school districts. Overall, the student population is expected to grow at a moderate rate, increasing from about 8,000 to 8,300 in the next 10 years.
The state Board of Public Education has called on Kultgen to come to its July 17 meeting and explain his plans to steer the district into compliance on kindergarten class sizes and other issues.
Kultgen said the district has already done much of what it needs to do to meet the accreditation requirements and has plans in place for the rest, and an OPI official agreed. For kindergarten, it hired seven new para-educators in January to meet the extra needs, and may hire two more for next fall.
Standards call for 1.5 hours of classroom staffing for every child over the 20-student limit. So a class with 22 students, for example, would require three hours of para-educators.
Another shortfall in the district is the lack of licensed school counselors. For several years, the district, citing a shortage of counselors, employed licensed clinical social workers instead. The state board has given provisional permission to the district year after year but is now calling for the school top staff up with the counselors.
Kultgen said the district has taken care of that, hiring counselors (3.2 full-time equivalents), but also wants to permission to keep the social workers on board, eliminating the positions by attrition instead of dismissing them outright.
Kultgen said he’s never had to appear before the state board before, but anticipates the state will agree that the district has corrected the shortcomings or is on track to do so.
“I am super-confident with where Helena’s at right now,” he said.
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Dennis Parman agreed that the Helena district seems to be headed in the right direction on the issues.
“We’re actually very pleased that he’s as made as much progress as he has,” Parman said of Kultgen.
Still, it’s unusual for a superintendent to be called upon at all to explain the plan for compliance to the state board. The Billings School District, a year ago, was the last to undergo that process, Parman said.
The shortcomings in Helena had been cited previously, but the board had always provisionally accepted the district’s plans for corrective action, with “a clock running in the background” on the district, Parman said.
“You have a certain amount of time to address whatever the deviations are, and if you do it right away, then the clock stops,” he said.
Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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