District Tries Multi-age Classrooms to Balance Budget

"I think it's something we're going to look at in the future. We want to really take our time and do a good job at East Olive and I'm really confident that the staff can do a great job." ~Superintendent Dedrick Martin

St. Johns, Mich. Grades K-2 will combine in the same classroom at East Olive Elementary in the fall, a part of the St. Johns Public Schools' effort to save money.

"Instead of going back and forth year after year adding and subtracting staff, we wanted to try to stabilize the staffing and still looking at ways of providing high quality instruction and most importantly keeping the class size and class numbers at a lower level," said Superintendent Dedrick Martin.

Facing a diminishing fund balance, the school board tasked Martin with trimming $3 million -- 13 percent of the budget -- for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

The balanced budget puts money back into a dwindling fund balance, but does slash more than $600,000 from elementary education. It tries to offset the losses with three "multi-age" classrooms that keep class sizes small.

Parents of East Olive Elementary students received a letter on May 14 saying a kindergarten teacher and fifth grade teacher would be eliminated at the end of the year.

Principal Mike Winkel announced grades K, 1 and 2 would combine to keep class sizes under 36 students per room. The remaining grades would remain single level.

The district's research says as long as the curricula are taught correctly, parents and teachers won't suffer and could even benefit. Younger students could gain from having older students in the same room and from the continuity of having the same teacher.

Teachers will have to undergo professional development in the summer.

Martin says it's a way to keep the cuts from the classrooms.

"We really want to make sure we don't compromise instructional quality for a dollar so we didn't do this just because of the money," he said, citing East Olive's small size. "There were some other things considering the two other schools we were looking at. And if it works well we'll look at other options."

East Olive is the only school to undergo the change, Martin said, but he would be open to trying it at other schools in the future. The method has worked in other states, Martin said.

Some people question the district's decision-making and suggested it to be putting a pretty dress and makeup on a financially-thin district. The school board also announced a pair of $6,000 raises for technology and transportation employees. It also appears to be investing in a new, career and internship oriented curriculum.

Though there were staff concessions on raises and healthcare, Martin says employees took them with the bigger picture in mind.

"People took financial concessions and it was for no other reason but their desire to be a part of the team and help the district get itself on right financial footing," he said. "Clearly we had a number of staff members that are doing a phenomenal job and they're going to receive less in their paycheck, healthcare changes that we couldn't help."


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