Education

Tacoma, other schools play waiting game for class-size reduction funds

VIDEO: Kindergarten JumpStart

Tacoma teacher Lin Riggio engages soon-to-be kindergarteners in a summer prep program called JumpStart. Kids meet teachers, make new friends and learn school routines -- as well as some classic nursery rhymes.
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Tacoma teacher Lin Riggio engages soon-to-be kindergarteners in a summer prep program called JumpStart. Kids meet teachers, make new friends and learn school routines -- as well as some classic nursery rhymes.

For more than 40 years, Tacoma kindergarten teacher Lin Riggio has been answering what she calls “Teacher, you know what?” questions.

They’re the tidbits kids often interject, sparked by a story she has told or a question she asked. The Point Defiance Elementary teacher loves the questions, even though they take time to handle.

Class size matters to Riggio. Even a reduction of two or three students can help.

“It’s a big difference,” she said. “There’s more time for the ‘you know what’s.’”

The 2015 state Legislature set aside more than $90 million this year to help teachers like Riggio across Washington. The money is designed to hire more teachers to staff smaller classes for students in kindergarten through third grade.

But as school opens for most Pierce County districts this week, most parents won’t see an immediate effect in their kids’ classrooms. Despite a 2012 Supreme Court order to reduce class K-3 sizes by 2018, among other public school reforms, and despite a 2014 voter-approved initiative calling for smaller classes at all grade levels, the wheels of school funding don’t turn that quickly.

Local school administrators say they’re uncertain how much of the potential new money they’ll be able to access this year. Legislators didn’t approve a budget until the end of June — after six months and three special legislative sessions — and the state is still working to determine funding for each district.

Early estimates contained a calculation error, said T.J. Kelly, who oversees school finance for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) .

“The most hotly debated issue is how we draft the rules and how the calculation will work,” Kelly said. “We want to be sure what we put out makes sense for districts but is also within the confines of what the Legislature intended.”

LOCAL IMPACTS UNKNOWN

Several local district officials said they won’t be able to gauge the impacts of the new class-size funding until after school starts, new students are counted and a funding formula is firmly in place.

“Our intent will be to capture the maximum state revenue to bring class sizes as close to the state ratio as possible within the space limitations we have,” said Rosalind Medina, chief financial officer for Tacoma Public Schools. “Once all the kids are in classrooms, we will do what we need to.”

Right now, Tacoma officials estimate the district could qualify for more than $2 million in added funding to reduce K-3 class size.

In the Puyallup School District, chief financial officer Corine Pennington said the goal is to staff to the maximum funding level where it’s possible. But finding space for new classrooms could prove difficult in some elementary schools, which district officials say are already overcrowded. Puyallup this year this year will move some sixth graders to junior high schools in what it hopes will be a temporary measure to free up space. It’s also asking voters in November to approve a $292.5 million bond measure to address the space crunch.

Pennington estimates Puyallup would have nearly $1.8 million in class-size reduction money available, but not necessarily guaranteed, this year.

Throughout the school year, state officials will periodically check local district enrollments and fund according to actual student counts.

“Even if we meet class-size compliance in September, we are not guaranteed full funding,” Pennington said. “Class size very rarely stays the same for the entire school year. We could meet it in January, miss it in March and make it again in June.”

Willie Painter, spokesman for Parkland-based Franklin Pierce Schools, echoed the uncertainty found in larger Pierce County districts.

“We don’t know the class-size funding we will eventually receive,” he said. “It is hard to say what our class sizes will be at this point, because we are still actively enrolling students. Furthermore, class sizes fluctuate throughout the year due to mobility.”

Most districts said the promised class-size funding hasn’t triggered a teacher-hiring bonanza. But the Bethel School District reports hiring 51 new teachers this year, many at the K-3 level, to meet new class size targets and to accommodate increased student enrollment. Superintendent Tom Seigel said Bethel was in a unique position because it had space in its elementary schools that was freed up after the district moved its sixth graders to middle schools, and it had local levy dollars needed to support teacher pay.

NEW TARGETS

The Legislature in 2014 allocated dollars for lowering class size in kindergarten and first grade, but only in high-poverty schools.

The latest budget adds more money and more grade levels, and includes all schools.

Still, it stops short of the across-the-board class-size reductions for all grades that were approved by voters in 2014 with the passage of Initiative 1351.

Previously, the state paid for class sizes in kindergarten through third grade at a ratio of 25.23 students per classroom, with slightly lower ratios for high-poverty schools.

In the new budget, money is available for class sizes of 22 students for kindergarten, 23 for first grade, 24 for second grade and 25 for third grade. High-poverty schools will qualify for even smaller class sizes: 18 for kindergarten, 19 for first grade, 22 for second grade and 24 for third grade.

The new numbers signify a need for more classrooms. Here’s an example: A high-poverty school with 72 kindergarten students might have previously divided them into three classrooms of 24 students each. But with enhanced funding, the students could be divided into four classes of 18.

Unfortunately, kids don’t always arrive at school in neat packages of even numbers. So educators will use districtwide averages, rather than literal classroom-by-classroom counts.

LOOMING ISSUES

As the new class-size funding formula is implemented, local school districts will have to grapple with several issues.

The first is teacher pay. Currently, the state pays for only about 70 to 80 percent of the average teacher salary; districts pick up the difference with local levy dollars. So for every state-funded additional teacher, school districts will have to spend more levy dollars. This discrepancy is one of the contentious problems that the State Supreme Court has ordered lawmakers to correct.

In Tacoma, Medina said the state last year gave her district $1.7 million for class-size reductions in high-poverty kindergarten and first grade. But it cost the district $2.4 million to comply with all the requirements needed to access that money, she added.

The second issue is classroom space — or rather, the lack of it. To add teachers and create smaller classes, schools need some breathing room. But in Pierce County school districts such as Puyallup and Franklin Pierce, many elementary schools are already pushing capacity.

The Legislature this year allocated $200 million for a test program offering construction grants to local districts that need to add space to reduce K-3 class size. The money can be used for permanent construction (funded at $615,083 per added classroom) or temporary portable classrooms ($210,000 per classroom). But the test program falls far short of statewide need, according to a 2014 survey of local school districts.

The last issue is the availability of teachers, and whether there will be enough in the hiring pool if most districts take full advantage of the class-size reduction money.

Other states are reporting teacher shortages, and Washington is headed in the same direction, according to state officials. In 2005, Washington colleges produced about 2,400 new teachers, said Jennifer Wallace, director of the state Professional Educator Standards Board (PESB). But 10 years later, the number hovers around 1,500.

Officials say districts outside the Puget Sound are already having trouble recruiting new teachers. School districts in the Tri-Cities are hiring teachers and substitute teachers with emergency certificates, which require less preparation than standard certificates.

“Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is down nationally, for a lot of different reasons,” Wallace said. Among them: more lucrative employment opportunities in an expanding economy, as well as what teachers frequently cite as a lack of respect.

In a report to the Legislature, the PESB suggested several solutions, including more aggressive recruitment by colleges, funding for alternative paths to certification such as on-the-job residency programs, and statewide funding to support early-career teachers so they don’t leave the profession early on.

Wallace adds that districts could benefit from better tools to project their staffing needs and more stable funding so they can make hiring commitments earlier.

Without such changes, she said, “We are going to stay on this roller coaster.”

BACK TO SCHOOL BASICS, DISTRICT BY DISTRICT

BETHEL

First day of school: Sept. 9 for grades 1-12; Sept. 14 for kindergarten; Sept. 16 for preschool

Last day of school: June 20

What’s new: The third phase of the Pierce County Skills Center for career and technical education opens. Art Crate Field has been resurfaced, and there are new LED lights. A Spanish dual-language immersion program is at Thompson Elementary. Every high school student will each be a digital device for school work.

CARBONADO

First day of school: Sept. 2

Last day of school: June 14

What’s new: In science, the district purchased a web-based program called “Teaching Garage.” It gives students in grades two through five hands-on learning. Another program, “Career Cruising,” is a career-education program for all grades.

The district hopes to run a successful bond campaign in February to fund remodeling of the district’s historic school building.

CLOVER PARK

First day of school: Sept. 2 for most students. Head Start begins Sept. 17, and ECEAP preschool opens Sept. 21. Kindergarten teachers hold family conferences for the first three days, and kindergarten classes start Sept. 8.

Last day of school: June 14

What’s new: Two new schools, Four Heroes Elementary and Beachwood Elementary on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, are opening with the start of school. Many preschool programs are now housed at an early learning center in the former Southgate Elementary.

A new Open Doors program is for students who are age 16-21 who need to earn credits to graduate. It is located at Clover Park High School. Full-day kindergarten is now districtwide.

DIERINGER

First day of school: Sept. 8

Last day of school: June 21

What’s new: Students in grades six through eight will get their own computers to use both at home and in school, while the district continues to expand computer access in other grades.

And the district celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

EATONVILLE

First day of school: Sept. 9

Last day of school: June 21

What’s new: Renovation of the Eatonville High School pool. A grant-funded focus on the arts at Eatonville Elementary. Computer science, coding and robotics at the high school. A partnership with several districts, including Steilacoom, to transform math and science instruction for middle school and high school students.

FIFE

First day of school: Sept. 3

Last day of school: June 17

What’s new: The city of Fife has installed cameras that will capture images of vehicles speeding through school zones in the vicinity of Fife High School, and the associated fines range from $132 to $268. The district will appoint a committee to evaluate the state of district facilities. And it is developing a five-year strategic plan for academics.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

First day of school: Sept. 1

Last day of school: June 21

What’s new: A new early learning center, with nearly 350 preschool students, opens Sept. 24. Construction on a new Ford Middle School commons will open in April. All middle and high schools will use the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which teaches study skills and other concepts to prepare students for college and careers.

ORTING

First day of school: Sept. 2

Last day of school: June 16

No other information submitted.

PENINSULA

First day of school: Sept. 2 for most students. Kindergarten starts Sept. 8. Henderson Bay High School starts Sept. 10.

Last day of school: June 17

What’s new: New secure entry systems at elementary schools — visitors must wait for someone inside to open the door. All-day kindergarten five days a week. The AVID college prep program starts at Key Peninsula Middle School and Peninsula High School. Kindergarten teachers will use the WaKIDS program, which allows them to meet with students and parents before the start of the school year.

PUYALLUP

First day of school: Sept. 8

Last day of school: June 23

What’s new: A new partnership with Central Washington University and Washington State University will offer college credit classes to high school students. Puyallup High School adds a new broadcast journalism class. Sixth graders will move from Zeiger Elementary to Ballou Junior High to relieve overcrowding. The district is asking voters in November to approve a bond measure for $292.5 million to help take the pressure off crowded elementary schools.

STEILACOOM

First day of school: Sept. 3.

Last day of school: June 15

What’s new: A partnership with other districts, including Eatonville, to transform math and science instruction. Additional Advanced Placement classes and a Bridge to College math class at Steilacoom High School. Full-day kindergarten at Cherrydale Primary School.

SUMNER

First day of school: Sept. 9 for most students. Sixth and ninth graders report for school that day at 7:25 a.m., while other Sumner students have a Wednesday late start schedule.

Kindergarten starts Sept. 14.

Last day of school: June 23

What’s new: Lunch prices increase by 25 cents for K-12 students. There was no increase to breakfast prices. You can see lunch prices for various grade levels at the district website, sumnersd.org. The school board is considering asking voters to approve a bond measure in February that would include renovation and expansion of Sumner High School, a performing arts center at Bonney Lake High School, a new elementary school and other major construction projects.

TACOMA

First day of school: Sept. 9 for most students. SAMI and SOTA started Sept. 2.

Last day of school: June 17

What’s new: A partnership with the Technology Access Foundation at Boze Elementary School aimed at transforming the school into a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) school. The first-year focus is in grades one, three and five.

Foss High School has a new name. It is now Foss World IB (International Baccalaureate) School.

Ongoing construction projects include McCarver Elementary, Wilson High School, Stewart Middle School, Wainwright Intermediate School and SAMI facilities at Point Defiance. Construction planning is underway at Arlington, Mary Lyon and Browns Point elementary schools.

UNIVERSITY PLACE

First day of school: Sept. 8

Last day of school: June 21

What’s new: AP European history at Curtis High School. A new orientation for sophomores and WaKIDS for kindergarten students. Teachers meet with parents and kindergarten students before the start of the school year.

WHITE RIVER

First day of school: Sept. 1

Last day of school: June 10

What’s new: New turf has been installed at White River High School

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