Overcrowded classrooms are one of Teton County School District No. 1’s greatest challenges.
The state of Wyoming has a class size recommendation of 16 students for every teacher of kindergarten through third grade.
But in Jackson “we have class sizes between 18 and 20 students,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said. “It just depends on the building and the grade level.
“We’ve been unable to meet that ratio,” she said. “Every year we have to request a waiver.”
Waivers are an acknowledgement that a district is unable to meet the state guidelines due to a lack of physical space.
An estimated 23.5 percent of district students in kindergarten through fifth grade are now learning in modular buildings.
“It started becoming an issue a year or two after Davey Jackson Elementary School was constructed, so in 2010 and 2011,” said Matt Rodosky, finance and technology director for the district. “It opened up over capacity.”
The district began using modulars at the same time and has been educating kids in them for five years.
“My daughter is one example of that,” information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said. “She’s a current fourth-grader, and she and her classmates have been in the modulars.”
Small class sizes usually provide a better educational environment.
“The best educational strategy — and that’s why Wyoming funds the schools that way — is small class sizes,” Chapman said. “It enables teachers, families and students to develop relationships and for teachers to know strengths, skills and areas that individual students need to work on.”
Chapman said that while adding two or three more children to a class might not seem drastic, that is still a classroom that is overpopulated by Wyoming standards.
“Every single year our classrooms are over the Wyoming guidelines,” Chapman said. “Then our kids are at a deficit.
The district does not see modulars as a sustainable direction to go in the future.
“Modulars, or trailers, are a short-term solution, but they’ve turned into a long-term solution in Teton County,” Chapman said. “They’re as nice as they can possibly be, but they are trailers.
“It’s a lower quality than what’s offered in the main building,” she said. “They’re not trashy and we’ve done our best, but it’s just a lower standard.”
The modulars are smaller than regular-size classrooms.
“Teachers have more students on their caseload than across the state of Wyoming,” Chapman said. “They’re serving those students in smaller facilities that are not meant for long-term use, and on top of that, we’re above the Wyoming guidelines of best practice. You have to look at those factors.”
Something has to give, and in Teton County that’s the size of special classes like art and music.
“The way we try to maintain the smaller class sizes in the core classrooms is increasing the size of art, music and foreign language,” Rodosky said. “So those classes are 1.5 or two times the normal size. You become a mile wide and an inch deep.”
That isn’t the solution, either.
“For a lot of kids specials are key to their overall educational experience,” Reynolds said. “While core classes are obviously critical, specials are an important piece. When you have class sizes that much larger it’s unfortunate.”
A staffing profile from the district this year shows the biggest disparity is in classroom teachers. To meet the state’s 16:1 recommended student-teacher ratio the district would need 17 more teachers.
Jackson Elementary School and Colter Elementary School are where the deficit between the model and the actual number of teachers is the greatest. Extra classroom aides have been hired in an attempt to make up for the difference.
To meet the ideal model with the current number of students the district serves, the district would also need to hire two more librarians, two or three more principals or assistant principals and five or six more secretarial and clerical workers.
District officials are hopeful that the opening of Munger Mountain Elementary School, along with the reconfiguration of Davey Jackson and Colter elementary schools in the fall of 2017, will help the problem.
“Opening Munger Mountain will get us 583 seats,” Chapman said. “We expect when we open Munger Mountain it will already be at 70 percent capacity. That will enable us to have appropriate class sizes elsewhere and not even need modulars.”
Asked how it would feel to watch modulars being dismantled and taken off school property, Chapman said, “That would be lovely.”