UPDATE: The WCPSS School Board voted unanimously to approve the plan described below at its April 10, 2018 meeting. 

There is no “one size fits all” solution for implementing the K-3 class size reduction law in Wake County Public Schools.

That was the message from Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore to the school board this week. Each of the 113 elementary schools in the system has unique space requirements, and the school system is offering several methods for schools reallocate their classrooms and teachers. Moore’s presentation was an information item, and no votes were taken to decide what methods will be used to fully implement the reductions by 2021.

After nearly two years of uncertainty around reducing class size, the General Assembly passed a law in February which required all public school systems in the state to reduce their class sizes to 18 in kindergarten, 16 in first grade, and 17 each in second and third grade. The reductions are phased in over four years by reducing classes from their current limit of 20 students by one student per year.

The law also created a new separate funding stream to pay for arts, music, physical education, and world language teachers who are commonly referred to as program enhancement teachers. That was an important change because the prior versions of the state’s class size mandate did not include funding for hiring additional teachers and school systems feared they would have to use the program enhancement positions to pay for classroom teachers.

As part of implementing this law, WCPSS need to hire at least 102 new K-3 teachers per year for the next four years.

In preparation for smaller class sizes, Wake County principals, area superintendents, and central office staff completed a space audit of all elementary school buildings to know which spaces are available for different instructional needs such as dedicated program enhancement classes, special education classrooms, and collaborative spaces.

To meet current standards:

  • 26 schools have multi-grade combination classrooms; for example, 10 first graders and 10 second graders.
  • 11 schools have two teachers in once classroom; for example, two certified teachers with up to 40 students in one classroom.
  • 35 schools have converted storage rooms, conference rooms, staff officers, and other spaces into instructional space to create 81 classrooms.

In addition to those circumstances, the school system predicts a need for 438 additional classrooms when using the projected enrollment for 2018-19. It is safe to say need for more classrooms will grow in future years as enrollment grows.

To implement the law under those conditions:

  • 86 schools will be over capacity without trailers.
  • 58 schools will be over capacity with trailers.
  • 15 schools have a cumulative 40 classrooms available for future growth.

This is where the hard work begins. Principals will lead the way in deciding what works for their buildings, and they will use a successive menu of options starting with immediate to long-term and least to most disruptive.

Immediate options include: filling any vacant or unused classroom spaces, repurposing other spaces, converting special education rooms, computer labs and collaborative spaces, and assigning two certified teachers to one classroom.

There is broad consensus to protect program enhancement and magnet-themed classrooms from conversion to regular classrooms except as a last resort. To convert these spaces, a principal must obtain approval from the area superintendent.

After those options are exhausted, central office staff and the school board will implement the next phase which may completed in up to 12 months, and may include small renovations, emergency enrollment caps, and changing student track assignments in multi-track year-round schools.

Long-term options that will take more than a year to implement include installing modular units (trailers), capping enrollment, updating the enrollment plan to reassign neighborhoods to new schools, and convert traditional calendar schools to a year-round calendar.

In the very long-term, the school system may also update is capital improvement plan to include extensive renovations, building additional elementary schools, and revise grade configurations at schools to create at K-2 school at single-story buildings and using another nearby school for grades 3-5, or by moving fifth graders to a nearby middle schools with available space.

Complying with the class size reduction mandate will put the school system’s emphasis on the 4 C’s of education into full practice because it is going to take communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity to be successful.

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