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Bemidji School District: Fewer classes this year see excess of students, but facilities crunch still a concern

Every year the Bemidji School District superintendent gives a report to the school board on class sizes, as determined by the number of students per licensed instructional staff member.

At a listening session before the regular school board meeting Monday, two school board members listened as a group of concerned parents from Northern Elementary School asked about the district's long-term plan to handle enrollment growth in the future.

The District sets the following class size goals: grades K-2, 25 students; grades 3-5, 30 students; middle school, 120 students per pod; and high school, 30 students.

Across all elementary schools in the district, 19 classes have more students than the approved class size limits. Three classes have three or more students in excess, about half as many classes as last year. Second-graders make up the majority of classes with excess students. One second-grade class at Horace May has 30 students, five more students than the approved limit.

Last year, 21 elementary school classes had more students than the approved limit. One class had three or more students in excess.

But the report also showed 60 elementary classes have fewer students than the approved class limit.

One fifth-grade class at Northern Elementary and a third- and fourth-grade combination class at Solway Elementary both have 18 students in class, 12 fewer students than the approved class limit of 30 students.

But these numbers can be misleading. For example, according to Superintendent James Hess, Northern Elementary originally had three classrooms of about 35 students. In an attempt to cut down on the number of students per class, the district decided to turn the art room into a classroom.

"The only space that was available was the art room," Hess said. "The art room is much smaller than other classrooms. We thought it would be best not to put more than 18 students in that classroom."

While only two classrooms at Northern have only one extra student in each and 18 classrooms have fewer students than the approved class size limits, Northern Elementary has no art room.

"I think the listening session continues to remind us we need to address the space issue," said acting school board Chairwoman Ann Long Voelkner.

A facilities committee has been established by the school district to assess how the district would handle a growth in enrollment.

"We need to revisit the committee's recommendations," Hess said. "The information is cold. It may be helpful to take another look at it."

At the Bemidji Middle School, Hess reported that two sixth-grade pods each have one more student than the approved limit. Last year, two sixth-grade pods had between one and five students in excess of the goal. One sixth-grade pod had five students or more in excess.

At Bemidji High School, 70 classes have more than the approved limit per class. Of these, 11 classes have five or more students in excess. One advanced placement U.S. history class has 38 students and one German II class has 37 students.

Last year, roughly 80 classes at the high school had more students than the approved class limit. Of those, 14 classes had five or more students in excess.

In the past, Bemidji School District officials have attributed higher class sizes to a loss of state revenue.

This year, fewer classrooms are seeing an excess of students compared to last year. Part of the reason is because of federal Education Jobs Fund dollars. In September, the school board approved the hiring of five elementary teachers to supplement increasing student enrollment in certain grade levels that were significantly exceeding the target class size.

According to Hess, the district is experiencing higher kindergartener numbers. There are 314 11th-graders this year compared to 423 kindergarteners. While the district is seeing more student enrollment at earlier grade levels, school districts are reimbursed from the state at a lesser rate for elementary children than for secondary students.

"We will continue to do our best to put students in more favorable class sizes," Hess said. "We are doing as much as we can. Right now it seems this is more of an issue with facilities than just our desires to reduce class sizes."