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Sizing up class sizes: Overall, district in line with recommendations, but exceptions are there

BEMIDJI — The vast majority of classes in the Bemidji School District meet class-size recommendations, but exceptions do exist.

Superintendent Jim Hess on Monday gave his annual report on class sizes to the Bemidji School Board, stating that in the cases when there are more students than recommended, particularly in the elementary schools, it is primarily because of a lack of available space.

The district would gladly add additional elementary classrooms, he said, but there is no space available in some elementary schools.

In Lincoln Elementary, for example, five sections of kindergarten exceed district recommendations of 25 students per class by two students or fewer.

Likewise, three second-grade classrooms there exceed the same recommendation by three or fewer students.

“Lincoln is crowded,” Hess said.

J.W. Smith has three kindergartens that exceed the recommendations by two or three students and two first-grade classrooms that exceed recommendations by a student each. “J.W. Smith, in kindergarten and first grade, those are pressure points right now,” Hess said.

Solway Elementary, with just one section of fifth grade, exceeds the recommendation of 30 students by two.

The remaining elementary classrooms — 86 of them — are at or below recommendations.

Hess credited that in large part to district actions, such as relocating multiple kindergarten sections to Paul Bunyan Elementary, also known as the kindergarten center. The center, reopened in 2011, now hosts nine sections of kindergarten and two sections of K-1, the district’s pre-kindergarten program.

Relocating select kindergarten programs to Paul Bunyan Elementary enabled the district to neutralize some class-size issues in other schools, Hess said. Additionally, the district realigned attendance boundaries to help alleviate crowding at some schools, but Hess said pressure points still remain. “This is certainly going to set the stage for future discussions about classroom space,” he said.

School Board member Melissa Bahr said she has heard principals now are less likely to accommodate requests for families hoping to have their child attend a different school, perhaps to keep him in the same school as his/her daycare friends.

“We used to make more accommodations for child care and things like that,” Hess agreed, “now the exceptions to people that want to enroll their student out of their attendance area are far and few between.”

older students

Class sizes are generally kept lower in younger grades — 25 students per class for grades K-3 — and they are raised as students age and gain more self-sufficiency.

At Bemidji Middle School, which operates on a pod system, three pods exceed the recommendation of 120 students each, one by four students, one by three and one by two.

Also, two BMS seventh-grade choir classes exceed the recommendation of 30 students, by six and two students, respectively.

Bemidji High School has more than 200 course offerings this first term. Of those, 27 classes exceed the recommended class sizes.

Hess said this is most common in courses appealing to high-performing students, such as advanced placement and accelerated courses.

Emma Walters, the student representative on the School Board, pointed out that in her AP Psychology, the course is over recommendations by seven students but students do not have much choice when to take the course because of the AP testing schedule.

“A lot of this is based on preferences and trying to build a schedule that works for each student,” Hess said.

He commended high school administrators and staff working with students to personalize schedules to best fit each student’s needs.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s like putting together a Rubik’s Cube that’s moving.”