Altamont Elementary to get new kindergarten section

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Altamont parent George Slingerland, standing at a crowded meeting on Tuesday morning, urges the school board to add another section of kindergarten at Altamont Elementary.  

GUILDERLAND — At a special meeting Tuesday morning, the Guilderland Board of Education, responding to parents’ requests, voted to hire a teacher to create a new section of kindergarten, to relieve overcrowding at Altamont Elementary School.

The district will not be hiring a new third-grade teacher for Pine Bush Elementary.

Neil Sanders, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, explained to the board that he had been able to find enough discrepancy between money budgeted and actually used to make it possible to hire one teacher, but not two. The amount of savings he located was, he said, about $138,000.

The district views the cost of hiring one teacher, including both salary and benefits, as $79,000. He noted that, in this case, the amount would be less, since the teacher will not work for a full year.

School started on Sept. 6 and has already been in session for two weeks.

A number of Altamont Elementary parents had spoken at the school board meeting on Sept. 12, talking about the overcrowding in the two sections of kindergarten at the school, which each have 24 students. They asked the board to consider making another section and distributing the children across three classrooms rather than two. The district’s guidelines call for having no more than 23 students in a kindergarten class.

When the third class is set up, each class will have 16 students.

Kerry Dineen, the mayor of Altamont and a music teacher at Pine Bush Elementary, told the board on Sept. 12 that third-grade classes at Pine Bush are also overcrowded, and the board had promised to look into that as well.

For third through fifth grades, the guideline is to have a maximum of 21 to 25 students, Superintendent Marie 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.

Several Altamont parents spoke at the Sept. 19 meeting, as they had on Sept. 12.

One parent from Pine Bush spoke, saying that she was against adding a new section. She mentioned that some of the current third-graders at Pine Bush experienced disruption last year because of “the playground incident.”

Last year, second-grade teacher Tim Horan was placed on leave for several weeks while a complaint by the parents of one of his students was investigated. The parents charged that, after their second-grade daughter fell, in the morning, from a piece of playground equipment and broke both wrists, Horan kept her in class for the rest of the day and refused to let her go to the nurse or seek medical attention. A lawsuit is ongoing against Horan and the school district.

Horan retired, as planned, at the end of the last school year and won a seat on the school board despite the lawsuit filed a week before the election.

Wiles said at Tuesday’s meeting that the board had received letters from Pine Bush parents, most against adding a new section. She said on Wednesday that the district received about 10 letters, most of them against, and a couple of them for.

Wiles explained the reasons for the overages this way: On July 1 the district had 69 students enrolled for the three sections of third grade at Pine Bush, which would give each one 23 students, “right in the middle of our guideline”). Seven students enrolled over the summer, four of them after the placement letters had gone out.

“Once we tell families who their teacher is in August, it is very hard to think about making changes,” she wrote in an email to The Enterprise, adding, “In this case, four extra students put us over the guideline by one student in two sections.”

The situation was similar at Altamont, Wiles said. Five kindergarten students enrolled between Aug. 21 and 31. One of those students never came, and the new students put the class size over by one in each section.

Dineen wrote in an email to The Enterprise on Wednesday that she thought creating an additional kindergarten section at Altamont is “great” and “the right thing to do.” She continued, “Our youngest learners need an appropriate class size to be successful.”

She said that her purpose in speaking at the last meeting had been to advocate for reducing the class guidelines before the next budget process begins, “so that, as we go forward, overcrowding doesn’t continue to happen in any building.” She said was happy to see that the board seems to be open to reconsidering the guidelines.

At the meeting on Sept. 19, the board was asked how long it will take for a new teacher to start at Altamont. Wiles said that the district is required to advertise for the position, although it could decide to advertise for only a short time, like a week. It would then conduct interviews and make a decision. If the person selected already has a job and needs to give notice, that could add as much as another month to the process.

Altamont Principal Peter Brabant said at the meeting that the success of this change will be determined by the teacher hired and by the way that parents handle this news and teach their children resiliency and “start the seeds of what matters most.”

If any family is strongly opposed to changing teachers, Brabant said, “I will handle that personally, with a conversation.” He said he was confident that, for those parents, meeting the new teacher and getting a sense of what the classroom dynamic would feel like would help to ease their fears.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Brabant told The Enterprise that this situation will offer parents a chance to teach resiliency and to, “three months from now, talk with the child and say, ‘Remember how stressful and sad you thought you were going to be, and see how happy you are now?’”

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