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Up, Up and Away: Class Sizes Increase But Funds Lacking To Bring Them Down

An additional 90 students this year is creating worries for School District.

Up, Up and Away: Class Sizes Increase But Funds Lacking To Bring Them Down

With the good can come the bad. 

And it appears that Belmont School District's long-stellar reputation for educational excellence has come back to bite Belmont's education pipeline as district classrooms are filled to the brim with students.

There are 347 first graders in Belmont, the largest grade level in the entire district, numbers seen in other classes up and down the K-12 grade structure to where enrollment in Belmont's six schools has breached the 4,200 student mark, and is expected to jump again in the coming school year.

But despite accepting data and a series of short-term staffing recommendations to stem the problems from an advisory group he established, Belmont School District Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston made a definitive statement on overcrowding presented Tuesday, Feb. 12 before the Belmont School Committee.

"We have no money now for me to make the recommended changes," said Kingston.

Where did all these kids come from? According to historical data, anecdotal evidence and information provided to the 12-member Class Size Advisory Group, led by Janet Carey, many "new" students are residents who are returning to the public schools from private schools. 

According to Assistant Superintendent Janice Darius, 81 K-12 students from Belmont left private schools with many of them heading back to the school district that annually ranks as one of the highest performing in the state and US.

"One reason is possibly the economy is bringing some back," said Kingston. 

When increased number of students began showing up on school doorsteps and in the classroom data this school year, Kingston formed the task force whose aim was to find information on both the effect of students in Belmont's classrooms and what needed to be done to mitigate the situation. 

The advisory group noted that the Brookings Institution provide conflicting findings; one that class size doesn't matter but reducing a class by seven to ten students result in long-term achievement.

Elementary classroom sizes about district's recommended levels

Belmont elementary schools are uniformly larger than the districts guidelines – first grade classes are between 20 to 26 students while the guidelines call for 19 to 23 students while 20 percent of sections at Belmont High School have more than 25 students.

The task force recommend Kingston to reduce class sizes in two specific grades; next school year's second-grade class at the Wellington Elementary and the 6th grade at the Chenery Middle School in 2013-14.

With between 23 to 26 students in the five Wellington first-grade classes above the 19 to 23 per classroom guide line limit, the advisory group recommends that two additional second-grade teachers be hired.

The group said even if the district froze enrollment for the coming grade and redistrict Belmont's students will not resolve the issues at "there is little capacity for the other three elementary schools to absorb the overflow," reads the report.

The coming Chenery 6th grade has between 25-to-28 students in each class, four to five students about the guideline standard, a situation that also requires increasing a pair of teachers.

While taking the task force's recommendations seriously, Kingston said under the $44.2 million "Available Revenue" budget the school district is using to formulate its fiscal 2014 budget, "there isn't the resources to move on (on the problem)," he said. 

The prospects of additional student – one group estimates Belmont could see one-hundred more students in the next school year (a number that Kingston believes is an "exaggeration") – could only exacerbate the overcrowding problem as each new student "costs" the district $12,500 to educate in additional staff and instruction. 

Unless additional fund above the current "Available Revenue" levels – something that Kingston is hopeful will occur by the time Town Meeting approves the school budget in June – "it will make a dire situation more so," said Kingston on Monday when the district's budget was presented to the Belmont Board of Selectmen. 

Judy Phalen, a parent of a Wellington first grader, believes that in addition to more children being taught in the Wellington, there is a logistics inbalance at the school her child attends. 

"It's (not that classrooms are) unused but are unassigned" for classes, where precious space is used as conference and break-out "space" for teachers or storage," said Phalen, who pointed out that the school's aftercare program is sectioned off into a single room where it's so overcrowded that it's "exploding" and has forced the program to suspend adding additional children. 

"The Wellington is carrying the burden of the added students" for the entire town, said Phalen. 

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