Washougal parents say classes too crowded

School district meeting its goals for class sizes – mostly

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A group of Washougal parents say their children’s elementary classes are too crowded.

The group of about half a dozen parents approached the Washougal School Board at the April 10 board meeting.

Amy Gunn, a mother of three school-aged children who used to volunteer in her son’s third-grade Columbia River Gorge Elementary School classroom, told school board members that she had concerns over classroom behavior as well as classroom sizes.

“Not only was the classroom crowded at 27 to 28 students, it had several students with special needs and several other students who had serious behavioral issues. The classroom was loud and chaotic, and not a good environment for learning,” Gunn said. “The classroom had no aides or paraeducators to help out.”

Gunn said her son began to feel unsafe in his classroom this year, after another student allegedly spit into his eye. Unable to switch their 8-year-old son out of that classroom, Gunn said her family opted to homeschool the third-grader.

The school district has a class size goal determined in the collective bargaining agreement of 25 students for K-3 classrooms and 28 students for grades four and five.

The Washington State general education average class size for K-3 classes is 17 students, and 27 students for grades four and five.

Washougal School District (WSD) Superintendent Dr. Michael Stromme said the district is meeting its goals when a class is at or below the stated classroom size levels. If a classroom exceeds that level, however, Stromme said the school principal will work closely with teachers to identify how they can best meet the needs of the students and teacher.

Records of elementary class sizes obtained by The Post-Record show that, as of April 13:

  • All WSD kindergarten classes are below the class size goal of 25
  • In first grade, there is one class at Gause Elementary that is at the goal, the rest are below
  • In second grade, five classes are at the goal, and one class at Columbia River Gorge is one student over the goal, with 26 students
  • In third grade, the two classes at Gause have 26 and 28 students, and at Columbia River Gorge, one class is at the goal and the other two are at 27 and 28 students
  • In fourth grade, only one class is at the goal of 28 and the rest are below
  • In fifth grade, one class at Columbia River Gorge is at 29 students while the other is at 28.

It is not uncommon for a class to fluctuate by one or two students over the class size goal, depending upon the movement of students in and out of the school district, Stomme said.

At Gause and Columbia River Gorge, where fuller classes are more apparent, the district hired one additional teacher for each school in January and February, Stromme added.

“The principal at each school worked with the staff to identify how to best employ the teacher in providing relief for impacted staff and supporting the learning needs of students across a grade level or several grade levels,” he said.

During the 2014-15 and 2016-17 school years, three classrooms in the district had at least one student over the district’s classroom-size goal, with 11 classes exactly meeting the goal. In 2015-16, six classrooms had at least one student over the goal, and eight classes were at the goal.

Jamee Homuth, a mother of a Columbia River Gorge student, also pulled her son out of the school district this year.

Homuth said her son loved to go to school, but that changed this year. She noticed that her son was angry and agitated after school.

“He started telling stories about kids being unkind to him in class and he started just being angry,” Homuth said. “And it took a while for us to realize that the anger that he was expressing at home was stemming from school.”

Homuth said she believes class size was definitely a factor in her child’s behavior, adding that she feels one teacher for a classroom with 27 or more students, including those who have special needs, is not enough to manage the students’ needs.

“I don’t blame the teacher. I think she was doing the best that she could within that situation,” she said. “But there were kids (who) needed more hands-on guidance, and they can’t get that with the class sizes as big as they are.”

When Homuth’s son began to cry and say he didn’t want to go to school, the family pulled him out of Columbia River Gorge, and had a meeting with a team of teachers and a district administrator to discuss what could be done to make his experience better.

Everyone at the meeting was in agreement that her son needed a less chaotic environment, Homuth said, but could not find a classroom that could accommodate that need.

Although Homuth’s son now attends a private school, she said that she feels strongly that the environment in Washougal needs to change and that positive solutions can be made if everyone works together.

“I am just in support for more support for teachers,” Homuth said. “I think we need more teachers. I think we need to pay them well so that they are motivated and want to be there, and also give them more resources or support programs.”

Shelby Multanen, a mother of three students who attend Gause Elementary School, said she is concerned about her third grade son’s class.

“There are too many diverse learning and behavioral needs to have 28 students per room,” Multanen said. “As it stands now, my 9 year old is going to continue on to the fourth grade next year with the same large class size. The Washougal School Board needs to be creative and figure out some way to reduce these class sizes for my 9 year old’s class going forward into fourth and then fifth grade.”

Frank Zahn, president of the local teachers’ union, the Washougal Association of Educators, said classroom size is a growing concern among his colleagues.

“When all students receive the instruction they need as individuals and as a group, it is an awesome and dynamic activity,” Zahn said.

Gunn worries that teachers are unable to properly address disciplinary issues when classes are too big.

“I understand that every student has a right to an education, but that should include my child too,” Gunn said. “There are students who are consistently proving to be a major behavioral challenge and a potential threat on a daily basis, and yet the behavior continues with no real consequences.”

One week after the board meeting, Gunn told The Post-Record she was disappointed that the district had not followed up on the parents’ concerns. She said she is considering not sending her son back to Columbia River Gorge next year.