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September 2, 2015

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the turnaround:

Elementary school with big goals copes with bulging kindergarten classes

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Leila Navidi

All the kindergarten students at Elizondo Elementary School eat lunch together in North Las Vegas on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011.

Elizondo Kindergarten

Teacher Paula Barry works with her kindergarten class at Elizondo Elementary School in North Las Vegas on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Launch slideshow »

The Turnaround: Elizondo Elementary School

KSNV reports on efforts to turn around struggling Elizondo Elementary School, Sept. 1, 2011.

Map of Raul Elizondo

Raul Elizondo

4865 Goldfield St., North Las Vegas

One by one, Paula Barry’s kindergarten class marched out of her classroom in a long, single-file line that stretched the length of the hallway and around the corner.

“Here come the little ducklings,” the 10-year veteran teacher said as she led her flock of 41 students to recess.

As of Thursday, Elizondo Elementary School had a record 123 students enrolled in its three full-day kindergarten classes. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the reading rug, overwhelm the playground during recess and rub elbows in the busy cafeteria where the kindergarten class takes up half of the seats.

“They’re a good group, but there are just so many of them,” Barry, 31, said as she watched the children romp around outside before lunch. “It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s something we’re willing to tackle.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this crowded.

Before September, kindergarten enrollment at the struggling “turnaround” school in North Las Vegas was projected at 78 students, or 26 students per class. By the first month mark, each of Elizondo’s three kindergarten classes had 41 students.

“I was surprised when I walked in (on the first day of class), but I was even more surprised when it kept growing and growing,” she said.

•••

As Las Vegas’ population skyrocketed over the past two decades, so too did the Clark County School District’s student enrollment. From 1998 to 2008, the School District grew by more than a third, building 112 schools since 1998 and becoming the nation’s fifth-largest.

Under former Gov. Bob Miller, Nevada instituted a class-size reduction plan in elementary schools, targeting selected at-risk kindergarten students and all students in first through third grades. Since it was implemented in 1990, Nevada has spent approximately $1.8 billion on the program to lower the state’s student-teacher ratios. According to the most recent data, which is from 2009, Nevada’s student-teacher ratio is sixth-highest in the nation.

But while Nevada aggressively instituted caps on class sizes in first to third grades, there isn’t one for kindergarten. When the number of kindergarten students hits 51, an aide may be assigned to help.

So, while Nevada’s student-teacher ratios for first to third grades have decreased since 1990, it has slowly crept up in kindergarten.

According to state data, the average student-teacher ratio for kindergarten was 21.5 to one in 1989 when the Legislature approved the class-size reduction program. Two decades later, the average student-teacher ratio in kindergarten was 26 to one.

•••

Today, the average kindergarten class size in Nevada is closer to 30 students, said Keith France, the new principal at Elizondo.

France attributes much of the overpopulation at Elizondo to the full-day kindergarten program being offered for the first time this year.

The full-day program offers Elizondo students — many from low-income families — a shot at closing their achievement gap with peers from more affluent communities.

Research has shown that children living in poverty start school two years behind their more affluent counterparts. In part, that’s because children from poor families aren’t exposed to preschool, Barry said. It’s simply too expensive, she said.

In a community suffering from the worst recession in 70 years, the full-day kindergarten program is a boon to many families in which parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

The full-day kindergarten is such an attractive “free child-care” option, France has caught many families using fake addresses on enrollment forms so their children can attend Elizondo. Over the summer, France made a number of unannounced house calls to ensure all of his kindergarten students are zoned for Elizondo.

“I could give these kids a better education (at Elizondo),” France said. “Unfortunately, we only have enough resources to give it to our kids.”

•••

Indeed, budget cuts have led to larger class sizes in school districts across the nation. To help plug a $150 million budget deficit, Clark County increased class sizes by three students at elementary schools and by two students in middle and high schools.

However, how much impact smaller class sizes have on student achievement is a point of much debate.

Proponents of class-size reduction point to a state-sponsored study completed in Tennessee in the 1980s. The research — the impetus for class-size reduction programs in 32 states — found students in classes of 13 to 17 students in kindergarten through third grades outperformed their peers in classes of 22 to 25 students.

While some researchers have replicated those results in other studies, critics point to the lack of test score improvement in states like Nevada that have implemented class-size reduction programs. They also argue other studies have shown that any gains made in kindergarten are erased by the time students reach high school, although a recent Harvard study found that students who learned more in kindergarten were more likely to go to college and earn more than similar students who didn’t.

•••

Regardless, kindergarten teachers at Elizondo were relieved when the district approved a fourth kindergarten teacher to help alleviate the crowded classrooms. School officials are hopeful that, with the first month of school over, kindergarten enrollment has stabilized.

The new teacher, Haley Peterson — a recent UNLV graduate who has been a student teacher in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in recent months — said she was overwhelmed by how many kindergartners were enrolled at Elizondo. When she starts on Monday, the student-teacher ratio in kindergarten will drop to 31 to one.

“Teaching 40 students is almost unmanageable,” said Peterson, 23. “Teachers are doing a good job, but it’s hard.”

Laurie Wanderski, a teachers’ coach who was visiting Elizondo on Thursday to oversee how it was implementing its reading program, said she was surprised by the large classes. Wanderski has taught kindergarten in Houston, where class sizes were capped at 22.

“I’m amazed there’s no chaos in there,” she said. “I commend teachers for that, but I see a lot of constant reminders to behave.

“I feel that these teachers have to spend a lot of time on classroom management rather than just teaching.”

•••

Barry zigzags around her classroom, directing students to their seats. It’s after lunch, and some students are acting like they had one too many sugary snacks.

“Gabby, I’m in the table across,” a girl wearing a maroon skirt yells across the room.

“Sit down, no talking,” Barry says into a black microphone, her voice booming through four speakers embedded in the ceiling – a new technology the district has implemented in many classrooms that helps teachers preserve their voice. “One, two, three. Eyes on me.”

As the students begin writing and drawing, a boy says, “I need paper.” Almost simultaneously, a girl comes up, arms outstretched, “It hurts, Ms. Barry,” she said. A fly buzzing around the room distracts some boys sitting at another table.

Barry smiles. During her 10 years teaching in Florida and Nevada, she’s spent most of her time teaching kindergarten. “I love that their first experience with school is with me.”

She kneels to help tie a student’s shoe. Barry says she does this often — there are more than 80 shoes here.

As one of five turnaround schools, Elizondo has a lot of pressure to improve test scores, which are some of the district’s lowest. As part of the turnaround, more than half of Elizondo’s teachers were replaced. Barry, who is the school’s lead kindergarten teacher, was kept. Her goal this year is to raise student achievement by 15 percent.

Individual attention — which many educators say is important to student achievement — is hard to come by in Barry’s class. “Unfortunately with 40-plus students, you need to plan which students to meet with on which day,” she says.

A fourth teacher will help, she said, but 31 students is still a lot when she was teaching 16 to 18 students in Florida, she said. However, she says she is still confident.

“Regardless of the numbers, we have a job to do, and our students will excel.”

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