Editor’s note: This story is one in a series looking at issues behind the $78.5 million bond proposal that will be on November’s election ballot.
Small classrooms are described as a big problem at Wilson Elementary School, where classes of up to 24 students sometimes must be placed in classrooms of only 650 square feet.
The result is a “claustrophobic” feeling, with student desks sometimes nearly stretching from wall to wall, leaving limited room to move around, said Anita Scheve, Wilson’s principal. Some teachers have even given up having a desk in order to make more room for student reading and “quiet” space.
“It’s a big problem for us,” she said. “We have 39,000 square feet in the building, and we have the largest enrollment of any elementary school. We started the year with 400 students.”
Wilson, Roosevelt and O’Loughlin all reported large enrollments this year, with nearly 400 students in every building. Roosevelt, by comparison, is 60,000 square feet, meaning it is approximately one-third larger than Wilson, but accommodates a slightly lower number of children.
Wilson has moved its kindergarten and first-grade classes into its biggest rooms, as those students require more space for reading workshops and group activities. Teachers also strive to offer a “safe spot” for students who might simply need a bit of quiet time to decompress, Scheve said.
“I go into some of our rooms and I feel a little claustrophobic,” she said. “When everyone is in there and you have 25 people, it feels crowded.”
Hays High School faces similar challenges, with larger classes — and older students — sometimes feeling crammed in 650-square-foot classrooms.
A proposed $78.5 million bond issue that will be decided by voters in the Nov. 7 general election puts an emphasis on “right-sizing” classrooms for optimal instruction, as well as reducing class sizes — particularly at the elementary school level.
The bond project calls for demolition of the existing Wilson building and construction of a new elementary school on the same site. A second new elementary school would be built in a not-yet-identified location, while O’Loughlin would be repurposed and Lincoln demolished.
The results would include larger classrooms, with a goal of 850 square feet and more parity among all of the elementary schools, said USD 489 Superintendent John Thissen.
The classrooms also increasingly require support staff, such as special education or ELL instructors, as a growing percentage of students have special needs. That also is a factor as to why the Hays USD 489 Board of Education has made it a goal to reduce class sizes throughout the district, hoping to optimize one-on-one instruction.
Reducing class sizes
The goal would be to have approximately 19 students per teacher, with a particular emphasis on keeping classes small for younger students, Thissen said. The district currently strives to cap elementary school classes at 23 students per teacher, but there are concerns that number is too large.
Reducing class sizes was identified as a high priority for many parents as the district conducted polling to help plan the proposed projects. Having a smaller class makes it possible for teachers to get to know each student better, he said.
Cuts to public education handed down by the state government during the last several years have resulted in class sizes increasing for many school districts.
“I would say in the last five years, it’s a very safe statement that in many districts, teacher/student ratios have increased, because there has been the attempt to do a little bit more without extra teachers,” Thissen said. “So then the class sizes got just a little bit bigger because of that. I’m speaking across the board, maybe as much elementary as anything else.”
Construction of new two elementary buildings would result in four sections of each grade level offered at each school, a net increase of eight K-5 classrooms that could help reduce class numbers.
Costs of hiring additional teachers to fill the extra classrooms are not included in the bond issue. The district already has begun looking for possible ways to absorb that cost, Thissen said, noting there likely would be savings realized if three buildings — including a Munjor childcare location — are vacated as the bond project suggests. The new buildings also would be expected to reduce utility and maintenance costs.
The former Washington building would be vacated as well, as the proposal calls for O’Loughlin to house the early childhood program, West Side Alternative School and the Learning Center. Lincoln likely would be demolished.
“I think there’s things that are in place that can work for us in being able to hire those teachers,” Thissen said. “Anybody looking at it would say, ‘Well, that’s a great year-to-year cost of just hiring new personnel.’ I would say we’re positioning ourselves for that in a good way.”
Educators also are hopeful the efficiencies, plus a potential increase in state funding, could make it possible for each school to once again employ its own counselors, nurses and teachers of special subjects such as art, music and physical education. Those educators currently split their time between two — or even three — schools.
When their time is so divided, it can make it difficult for teachers to fully know the culture and school-specific instruction methods, Scheve said.
“Some specials teachers are in three buildings. There’s not that sense of knowing all of those, and it makes it much more difficult,” she said, “which in turn makes it more difficult instructionally for students, because they don’t have the same consistency.”
Some schools, such as Lincoln, also have to share classroom space between special classes.
The proposal also calls for a new auxiliary gymnasium for physical education classes at Hays Middle School. Currently, up to three classes — and 90 students — must share the space at the same time. In some years, that number has been as high as 120.
Room to grow
Several studies have indicated Hays’ population is expected to grow — albeit at a slow rate — which also highlights the need to have space in the future for additional students, Thissen said.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects continued population growth in Ellis County through 2060. The number of people living in the city of Hays increased between 0.25 percent and 0.5 percent from 2000 to 2015.
“There truly is the belief that Hays will not get smaller,” he said. “We are outfitted in this city in such a way with a regional medical center, with FHSU, with the tech college, we have every likelihood that is true. We’re going to continue to grow some, whereas other counties in the northwest part of the state are going to gradually decline. That’s already showing somewhat.”
But if residents in other rural areas begin gradually moving to Ellis County, that will create a need within the school district, Thissen said, noting something likely will have to be done regardless of whether the current bond proposal is approved.
The growth is projected to be slow, likely continuing at its current rate. There is, however, always the possibility of an unexpected event — such as the recruitment of a large employer — that could cause projected population growth to deviate, Thissen said.
“If the numbers would really change tremendously in the next five years, well, we’d have to come back to some table talk to figure out what to do,” he said.
The district’s total enrollment has remained fairly flat for the last few years, but Hays' schools are seeing larger elementary school classes enter the system as smaller high school classes graduate, he said. Hays High School, currently classified as 4A Division I, is expected to regain 5A status next year due to larger classes moving in.
While future growth is a factor, Thissen stressed that — for now — the need for additional classrooms is driven by an effort to reduce class sizes as soon as possible.
“People in the public need to understand, at this point, the rationale for that isn’t growth at the moment, it’s that teacher/student ratio,” he said.