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December 18, 2014

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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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  1. Elizondo is one of the only schools in the area with a FREE FULL-DAY Kindergarten program. Most schools in that area only provide a free HALF-DAY program or a FULL-DAY PROGRAM which requires payment. Parents in the area did whatever they could to be able to enroll their students at Elizondo - lots of residential affidavits to "prove" they live in the area. Most likely people are using friend's addresses.

    For obvious reasons a FREE FULL DAY program benefits kids and families. It is very difficult for most people to get their child to and from a HALF DAY program. Childcare costs are expensive - if you have to pay for the other half of the day while you work.

    And if you had the chance to get your child twice as much education their first year of school - wouldn't you do it too?

    In very at-risk areas FULL-DAY programs are standard because they receive Title I or other funds. But in the area like Elizondo is in, the students are significantly at-risk but not at-risk enough - there might be 85% free and reduced lunch but not 100% like a lot of schools in Las Vegas.

    Kindergarten is not mandatory in the state of Nevada. Technically, students don't need to go. So many . . . do not. Or they only attend partially - 35 days instead of the required 180. Then they enter first grade very, very, very far behind - as the first round of testing shows. While flexibility with Kindergarten might make sense to a rancher who cannot afford to get his child into town for a 1/2 day of school - this legislation makes absolutely no sense in a urban and more dense area like Las Vegas.

    Early intervention is so important for children of poverty or who are at-risk for a variety of factors. It is so much easier to give them support early than try to remediate after years of failure. But the funding is not there in this state. The money is not placed where it could make the biggest difference.

    But concerned or financially strapped parents - will try to get their child into a free FULL-DAY Kindergarten program, because it's better for the child and the pocketbook and more convenient.

    My school, next door to Elizondo, offers a FULL-DAY program which costs $350 a month. . . parents pay for the other part of the day. I don't think I have to state the obvious - that's a lot of money for people living in the North Las Vegas area.

  2. Last year when my daughter went to full day kinder, it was a lottery system to get in. There were 30 children in her class which was the cap and I thought that was too much. I had to pay $300 a month She came out fine though because she had a great teacher and a parent at home who worked with her. She was completely prepared for 1st grade. 41 is way too much in a classroom. This should not be allowed.

  3. Good grief...

    Is there any wonder why Nevada's educational system is in chaos?
    This article highlights just a wee little bit of what ails us, but is really indicative of the system in general; chaotic, over-burdened, underfunded, muddled in bureaucracy, and hindered by a lack of clear focus.

    first_grade_teacher Angie Sullivan;
    EXCELLENT, EXCELLENT COMMENTARY!
    Your comments are right on, but will escape the grasp of many.

    Until Nevader comes to the realization that a top flight EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM is paramount to building a livable society out here in the middle of the desert, we will flounder. Forever. Bottom of all the good lists, top of all the bad ones.

    Around America, all the good, "livable" cities are considered to have a top-notch EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM available to all it's citizens.
    All the 'less desirable' cities are NOT considered to be 'educationally oriented'.
    Check it out for yourself. FACT.
    And, NO. It's not just about dollars spent.
    It's about making a COMMITMENT.
    Not this dog & pony, show & tell, Brian Sandoval-led Nevada 'plan' to raise educational outcomes... THAT plan is for adults only. Designed to make adults look better at the expense of the children. Politically motivated and sorely lacking any real substance.
    It does NOTHING to advance Education in Nevada.

  4. I went for a semester in a Salt Lake City HS. The school was well-funded, the gym was amazing. The staff, not so much. It all depends on the people.

    We moved around a lot for my dad's job when I was a kid. I've been to school in several cities in Nevada, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona.

    I had great teachers here from K-3, a fabulous teacher in NM for fourth grade, Mr Stack in Reno for seventh grade algebra. I also had the privilege of learning from Ms. Vallon in AZ and a crazy, wonderful, teacher that looked like Yosemite Sam in Pocatello Idaho.

    I think the answer is to hire a great principal and give him or her the empowerment to build a great team. There are some amazing educators out there, we just have to find them, and nurture them. Mediocrity really sucks in the classroom.

  5. More media MIS REPRESENTATION. Pic shows mucho more than 41. And team teachers with classroom aides can't handle 41????? Then they shouldn't be in the class room. Gee the photo editor even found a couple blond kids.

  6. The sad thing is that people think getting "an aide" means each teacher gets one. The real truth is that 1 aide will be shared among all 3 classes.
    Not an effective source of help at all. The teachers will still spend the majority of their time alone with all 51 kids.

    It's time to get a cap on kindergarten class size, too. I don't care if you're the best teacher on the planet. There is NO way to effectively teach that many kids.

  7. Shows where the priorities are in this region and state. Who gives a rat's back side about kids and education. Casino's and jobs are much more important. I am so disgusted I just don't know where to start.

  8. @roseanrose. Once more you are misstating the facts. It has been pointed out to you NUMEROUS times the 96k figure you love to state for teachers is DOES NOT EXIST. This is a link to the current pay scale with benefits for CCSD. Please tell me where you see 96K. There are only three pay grades over 90K with benefits, and those happen to be for teachers with PHD's with over 12 years experience. How many of those are in CCSD?

    Funding for education and funding for the areas that you mention are competely separate and don't have any impact on each other. Please get your facts correct!!!!!!

    http://www.ccsd.net/jobs/lps/?p=salary

  9. @roseanrose. Newspapers have a wonderful habit of printing captions under pictures. Maybe you should try reading them before you display your ignorance.

    I have copied the caption for you.

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

  10. @roseanrose:

    Thanks for your comment. The photograph shows some of the 123 Elizondo kindergarten students eating lunch in the cafeteria, not just those in Paula Barry's class. The kindergarten teachers at Elizondo do not have aides.

  11. Tanker: Of course roseanrose couldn't keep 41 5-year-olds on task for an hour, let alone for a whole day. It is a terrible state of affairs when kindergarten classes have such high numbers. This is the place where they learn to go to school, where they learn the basic skills that are required to be successful in future years, yet we expect kindergarten teachers to do the impossible.

    It doesn't matter if every single one of those 41 students (or 31 when they get a new teacher added) are perfect angels. The fact is that group dynamics change the more kids are crammed into a room and that's when behavior problems start occurring, even with usually well-behaved kids.

  12. Nevadans got what they VOTED FOR.

    Here in the USA, our public school system must educate any child that comes to that school.

    If we hope for any relief, any positive change, we must begin with enforcing our borders and immigration laws. That WILL bring the much needed commitment with parents/families to learn the ENGLISH language, vital in our country's school systems for successfully completing schooling pre-K to grade 12/Graduation!

    Due to the LACK of ENGLISH LANGUAGE support from student homes, it compounds educator's jobs. Students spend an inordinate amount of extra time "learning to read," because they are years behind in reading comprehension, than they are "reading to learn"!

    We need to address the root of the problem in order to tackle the affects.

    Those many families looking to have their children educated, need to be supported as well, to become USA CITIZENS, become acculturated as US Citizens, read, speak, listen, and count in ENGLISH here. They do a great disservice to do otherwise, and place unfair burdens everywhere they touch. Our USA and STATE political LEADERSHIP are responsible for this mess.

  13. My children's school has 44 in the morning kindergarten class and 36 in the afternoon class. That means ONE TEACHER is in charge of 80 students. 80 report cards. 80 parent/teacher conferences. 80 assessments. You tell me how that's possible? The large majority of those students have English as a second language. We are failing an entire generation of children by not providing adequate funding for early childhood education. There is NO WAY that one teacher can teach 80 children how to read. It's a joke.

  14. A licensed daycare cannot have more than 13 five year olds without adding another adult in Nevada. Where are the fire restrictions for shoving 51 students into a classroom with one adult? It's simply unsafe!

  15. We need to focus on math, science and English and all other subjects should be the responsibility of the parent. By paring down the system to the basics there would plenty of money left over to address class size.