GCSD board will try to fund more classes at Altamont and Pine Bush

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Crowded classroom: Missy Raguette, at right, and Tracy Stalteri are the two kindergarten teachers at Altamont Elementary now. Parents have asked the board to add another section, because there are more children in each class than allowed by the board’s guidelines.

GUILDERLAND — Parents of Altamont Elementary kindergartners asked the school board on Tuesday to create another classroom this year, to relieve overcrowding.

The board suspended its own rules to discuss the matter immediately afterward, so that parents could be present, and then decided to have Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, try to find a way to fund the new section, as well as a new third-grade section at Pine Bush Elementary School. It also agreed to hold a special meeting next week to make a decision.

Guilderland guidelines call for no more than 23 students in a kindergarten class. Altamont Elementary has two kindergarten classes, each with 24 students.

Board members had asked parents if meeting a month from now would suffice, and parents had said no, that if students were going to be redistributed into three smaller classes, that process should happen as soon as possible.

The meeting will be held Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 8 a.m. in the district office conference room, district spokeswoman Aubree Kammler said on Wednesday.

George Slingerland, who has two children — in the second grade and kindergarten at Altamont Elementary — told the board that he and his wife decided, five or so years ago, to build a home in the area because of the schools, but that the district’s ranking among area schools has been slipping ever since then. He said he was not sure why, but that he thought class sizes had something to do with it.

He said he telephoned the districts that have been consistently highest in the rankings — Niskayuna, North Colonie, Voorheesville, and Bethlehem — and found that the average kindergarten class size in those districts was 20, with an average cap of 22. Bethlehem’s kindergarten classes have 18 students each this year, he said, and Bethlehem’s cap is 22.

School district rankings by the Albany Business Review are based on data from the State Education Department for all kindergarten through 12th-grade districts in the greater 11-county Capital Region. The rankings are calculated on a weighted tabulation of school test results.

In recent years, the Guilderland board has had extensive discussions on the value of scoring well on standardized tests if it means teachers must sacrifice more authentic learning in order to teach to the test.

Parent Adrienne Bush told the board that kindergarten size at Altamont has been very large for the past three years, with the students then broken into three classrooms for first grade.

Parent Kelly Dover told the board that Altamont has the lowest socioeconomic status of the district’s five elementary schools, with 24 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, as compared with Pine Bush’s 4 percent. She said that children raised in poverty are faced daily with overwhelming challenges, and that “their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance.”

This was a compelling reason, she said, to make sure that classes at Altamont in particular are not overcrowded, to keep children from beginning to fall through the cracks at the start of their public schooling.

Kerry Dineen, the mayor of Altamont and a teacher at Pine Bush, told the board that third-grade classes at Pine Bush are also overcrowded.

The district standard for kindergarten size is 18 to 23 students, Superintendent Marie Wiles clarified for the board. The district average right now for kindergarten size is 21.5. The high is Altamont with 24 students in each of two classes, and the low is Guilderland at 19.2. Additional kindergarten sections were added this year at both Pine Bush and Guilderland, she said.

For third through fifth grades, the standard is 21 through 25, Wiles said.

Dineen said that the three third-grade classes at Pine Bush now have 26, 26, and 24 students. Wiles said that seven new third-graders moved in this summer, most of them in August.

The budget for this school year included four unassigned teaching posts, referred to as full-time equivalents, Wiles said, but she said that they have all already been assigned. She noted that the board had discussed, in the spring, adding another post, but had decided against it, and said that board member Barbara Fraterrigo had asked her earlier that day, “Don’t you wish you’d gotten that fifth FTE in April?” She did wish that she had, Wiles told the board, adding, “I’ll remember that next year.”

Wiles said on Wednesday, “We’re working on it right now,” referring to finding ways to save enough money to make the new classes possible. She added, “It’s not as simple, though, as ‘Here’s $100,000; add two classes.’” She said that those new sections need to go to classes like art and music and physical education, which means that the entire master schedule needs to be adjusted.

Altamont Elementary Principal Peter Brabant told the board at the meeting that if it decided to somehow add another section, the school would find a way to redistribute the students to produce three balanced classes.

Brabant told The Enterprise Wednesday that he was “very encouraged by the board’s reaction.” He said he wanted to emphasize that the district office administration and the school board “always work diligently to do what’s best for kids within budgetary constraints.”

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