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Feeling the pinch: Bemidji elementary schools faced with increased class sizes

J.W. Smith Elementary fourth-grade teacher Teresa Culligan accompanies her students to their bus. J.W. Smith, like most of the elementary schools in the Bemidji School District, is dealing with an increase in student population. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – The Bemidji School Board this year added an additional kindergarten section at Horace May Elementary.

As of last month, 79 students had registered at Horace May for kindergarten, which were simply too many kids for three sections.

The situation is not unique to Horace May – elementary schools throughout the Bemidji School District are dealing with increasing student populations.

Elementary enrollment on the first day of school was up 109 students – to 2,470 total – compared to last year, according to Superintendent Jim Hess.

Hess said many elementary classrooms right now are at capacity.

The fifth-grade class throughout the district, in particular, contains a lot of kids. According to Hess, Solway has 31 students in its fifth-grade class; Lincoln has classes with 32 and 33 students; J.W. has classes with 28 students; while Northern has 28-30 kids per class.

“Our fifth grade right now, district-wide, is big,” Hess said.

Class sizes should be kept down in the lower grades and gradually increased as students become more independent, Hess said. The target for students in K-2 is around 20-22 students per class with that number rising for students in grade three and above.

“Still, we’d like to keep them within reason,” he said. Classes with more than 28 students are larger than what the district is comfortable with.

The biggest issue with high student enrollment is the lack of available classroom space, he said.

The district will add paraprofessionals or part-time teachers to break large classes into smaller groups throughout the day, but several schools have simply run out of classroom space.

At Horace May, for instance, the art teacher does not have a set classroom and travels with supplies from room to room.

“We’ll make it work,” said Ami Aalgaard, Horace May principal. “Staff has been extremely cooperative.”

The district last year reopened Paul Bunyan Elementary to free up classroom space in elementary schools. Paul Bunyan Elementary, 3300 Gillette Drive NW, hosts four sections of kindergartners from Northern and two sections of kindergartners from Solway, as well as the district-wide pre-kindergarten program, K-1.

Hess said creating additional classrooms at Paul Bunyan remains an option, depending on future enrollment. District offices would be relocated to make available more classroom space, if that becomes necessary.

“Classroom instruction comes first,” Hess said. “If we have to move the superintendent’s office, then that’s what we do.”

In November 2011, 67 percent of district voters rejected a $13 million bond that would have allowed for the construction of a new elementary school in Bemidji Township.

Following that vote, the school board adjusted the attendance area for J.W. Smith and Solway schools so J.W. Smith could take in more students.

That appears to be working, Hess noted.

“There’s plenty of room at Solway, except for the fifth grade,” he said.