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Dietrich: North Penn Prepared to Hire One Teacher, Use Art Room as Classroom at Knapp Elementary

Tony Di Domizio

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 • 3:24am

North Penn School District Superintendent Dr. Curt Dietrich knows what many parents of Knapp Elementary students already know – they are running out of room.

One sect of those parents knows that all too well: those of sixth graders assigned to modular units at the Knapp Road school.

With the possibility of sixth-grade enrollment numbers nearing the 29-student-per-classroom threshold, parents came out seeking answers and a potential solution from Dietrich and the North Penn School Board Tuesday night.

Dietrich promised them an answer in a few days and would communicate with Knapp Home & School Association President Gwen Pescatore.

Sept. 12 – 10 days after the first day of school – is the ultimate deadline for a decision. Dietrich said North Penn typically makes a decision in time for the posting of class lists and assignments on Aug. 21.

“We are monitoring class sizes closely. We are looking at 87 students enrolled in sixth grade at Knapp, and we have to look at appointments through the registrar. If in fact we have that number coming, we have the ability to add another teacher there,” he said.

Knapp, at present, has a total 662 students at the school, Dietrich said.  

“At 662 students, it is the largest elementary school enrollment. It’s a school that is bursting at the seams,” he said.

If another teacher is hired at Knapp, then it means the art classroom would be taken for classroom space. Like the music program at Knapp Elementary, art would then become mobile, in the form of “Art on the Cart.” Instead of students going to the art room, the art comes to them.

“There are not many options facility-wise. The next option is putting art on the cart, to be able to accommodate additional classrooms,” Dietrich said.

He said the district is monitoring class sizes at all 13 schools.

“We do have cases where families do not disenroll children after they have left. They have no intention of returning – perhaps they moved or left the country. We have to ascertain whether or not they are coming back,” Dietrich said.   

Pescatore, of Village Drive in Montgomery Township, told the board Tuesday there were several issues with a larger class size, namely quality of learning.

“I’ve done so much research … and there’s nothing that supports a positive learning environment with so many children,” Pescatore said. “Many say under 20 is best, but I understand that is not realistic. Twenty-nine is extreme. Our request is bring it down to something a little more reasonable.”

Pescatore said other concerns of parents include the safety of children in emergency situations.

“I have been in those mods on several occasions. With 25 students, I can barely get in to take pictures for the yearbook,” she said. “I’m not sure how you would safely evacuate 25 students, let alone 29 or 30. In the event of a lockdown, where do you hide them?”

Pescatore said the closets in the modular classrooms may hold six, and joked that it couldn’t hold a dozen students “unless you start stacking them.”

A third major concern of parents, she said, was behavior management. With 29 students, a teacher must find a way to divide his or her time among all of them. It sets the sixth graders up for disadvantages, she said.

“That’s more downtime for other students to be distracted and possibly get out of control,” she said. “Now, the teacher is spending time managing behavior instead of teaching.”

 Jonathan Kassa, of Gwynmont Drive in Montgomery Township, who has one of his two children at Knapp, said he just found out about this issue on Friday.

“We’re aware that there were at least three other attempts in the past few years to consolidate classes at other elementary schools,” Kassa said. “It doesn’t seem like those plans, to my knowledge, have yet stuck. They’ve been a failure.”

Kassa said there is no reason for Knapp to continue this “experiment” to push the district threshold for capacity. He said that the district’s own website states studies which say English as a Second Language students have much better success when classroom sizes are smaller.

“I’m not sure how much was taken into consideration with this plan,” he said. “When has this been implemented before, or just at Knapp? What studies have been done about consolidation before? Do we have access to them?”

Kassa acknowledged the board had very tough decisions to make across the district.

“At the end, we prefer better communication. The accountability on all of our parts comes from communication and transparency. We need to set an example for our children,” he said.

He said he has had to explain to his child why “all of a sudden things aren’t the way he expected them to be.”

“We should go to the FDA and find out what the guidelines are for acceptable levels of E. coli in our food. We could find out acceptable levels of mercury in our water. We have an acceptable level and guideline set by the board for what our expectation could be at Knapp Elementary,” Kassa said. “I wouldn’t feed my children anything on the higher threshold of guidelines and I certainly don’t expect us to educate them on the highest end of that spectrum either.”

Kathleen Waters, of North Line Street in Hatfield Township, asked Dietrich what the tipping point was.

“You said if we have 87 students, you’d put another teacher in, but if we drop to 85, does that mean we won’t?” she said. “What consideration is based on enrollment?”

Dietrich said the district will apply class size guidelines, and then take an additional step and look at particulars in the school or classes, such as unique student needs.

 “We look at unique needs in a class setting and determine if anything can be done because of that. Another consideration is, is there physically room? If not, we have to take steps to address concerns,” Dietrich said.

Upper Gwynedd Township resident Amy Agriss told the board Tuesday that her sixth grader’s class at North Wales Elementary is at 29 students, split between two classes.

“That means my child is going into sixth and will lose the opportunity to switch between multiple teachers, which I feel is a really important thing for him to learn,” Agriss said.

She said the biggest struggle for incoming sixth graders, which she witnessed as a decade as a sixth-grade teacher, is learning how to manage five major teachers, plus humanities.

“It’s difficult on children,” she said. “Twenty-nine kids per class in a mod is really stretching the limit. I have a very bright child, and he was lost over the last two years because he had 29 students and the teachers stretched themselves.”

Going from 24 to 29 in a classroom is a “major difference.”

“The students need teachers’ attention and they don’t get it,” she said. “I asked my son what he would say to the school board members, and his statement was, ‘I want more attention from my teacher.’ He’s bright and doesn’t get the attention because he is bright. Other kids that don’t understand the material need more of the teacher’s attention than a bright student does. They need the class sizes to be smaller. It’s better for the students.”

Board President Vince Sherpinsky said Dietrich has the freedom to make a decision on the matter.

“He has the permission to resolve the problem,” he said. “He is working on that. He is charged with verifying the people registered are going to be there.”

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