Over twenty people attended the August 14, 2014 Vernonia School Board meeting, most of them there to express concerns about the District’s plan to group all kindergarten through second grade students together for instruction this coming school year.
After hearing the concerns of one parent, School Board Chair Bill Langmaid asked Superintendent Aaron Miller to explain the rationale for the decision to place students in five K-2 blended classrooms this school year.
Other parents raised questions and expressed their own personal concerns throughout the rest of the discussion, which lasted for over an hour. The parents were mostly focused on how individual student’s needs would be addressed in a blended classroom setting.
Miller told the audience that the initial impetus for the move was the breakdown of numbers of registered students in each of the three grade levels. “As we were looking at those numbers and trying to figure out how to put them into equitable class sizes between the four teachers, there were no good options,” explained Miller. Miller said that even by adding a fifth teacher there were still big disparities in class sizes and went on to explain that the solution to blend all three grades came from the teachers themselves along with Miller. Miller noted that by adding a fifth teacher class sizes have been reduced from thirty-one students to twenty-three students. “That is a significant difference and played heavily into our decision making,” said Miller.
Miller told the parents that there were several additional factors involved in the decision. Miller stated that in each of the last six to seven school years there has been a need to blend different grades as a reaction to class sizes. “By moving to a consolidated K-2 program we can eliminate the need for switching those blended classes every year.” Miller noted that the plan, in most cases, would call for a student to have the same teacher for all three years in the blended program.
Miller told the audience that the District has a positive history of blending classes. Most recently they have used a blend model for K-1 students with good results. “It worked,” said Miller. “Teachers found ways to make it effective and address the variety of student needs and parents were not concerned because they saw it in action.” Miller also pointed to the highly successful Mist School, which operates as part of the Vernonia School District and blends approximately twenty-five K-5 students in a single classroom.
Miller explained that the school has already instituted a blended reading program for grades K-2 where students are assessed to determine at what level they are reading and then grouped so they are working with a teacher on skills that are appropriate for each student’s developmental level. “In terms of addressing individual needs this consistent program actually allows us to be more focused on individual skills that students need,” said Miller. Miller pointed out that there is always a wide range in abilities, knowledge and comprehension levels in any straight grade level class.
Miller told the audience that students, in addition to working in ability level groups for reading, will also be assessed and grouped for math instruction. He explained that each student will have a homeroom teacher who will also teach science and social studies and other projects but that students could have different teachers for reading and math. Miller said that the homeroom class learning will be integrated, so students in all three grades would learn the same subject matter but the expectation of final product work would be different for each grade level.
Miller noted other factors that were involved in the decision to blend classrooms included consistency in instruction by teachers, which is a natural result of a teaching team working together in this format. Miller also noted an expansion of student’s peer groups as being a benefit of blended classrooms.
Overall, about six parents expressed concerns or asked questions about the new classroom format. At least three parents spoke in favor of the blended classrooms. At the end of the discussion several audience members thanked Miller for his explanations and the Board for allowing the discussion to go on for so long. Several audience members said they still had concerns about the program. Board Chair Langmaid and Miller both thanked the audience for being in attendance and for making their concerns known. “We need this type of support and concern from all parents,” said Miller. “It’s a tough job we have to educate our children and it’s a partnership when it’s done best.”