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It will probably be a record enrollment year next year at Congdon Park Elementary School. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)
It will probably be a record enrollment year next year at Congdon Park Elementary School. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Parents, teachers want quicker action to address crowding in some Duluth schools

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Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

Just over 600 students are already signed up to attend Congdon Park Elementary School this September.

Up from about 540 last fall, that’s a troubling number to many parents and teachers who are asking Duluth school district administration to stop the classroom bloat.

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“Do you actually want to come to Congdon if (your kids) are going to be in first grade or kindergarten next year?” questioned first-grade teacher Leah Klein. “There are 30 in each of our classes.”

Congdon Park is one of several elementary schools in the district slated to be above capacity in the next couple of years — including Piedmont, Lester Park and Myers-Wilkins — prompting Superintendent Bill Gronseth to begin boundary change discussions earlier this year at community meetings. But those changes can’t come fast enough for some Congdon parents and teachers, who are urging administrators to either make those changes quickly or announce them far enough in advance so they have time to plan. Barring that, some say, add more teachers to accommodate the influx of students and stop allowing students to transfer into Congdon from other district schools.

A full-time teaching position has been added to the number originally allocated to the school, Gronseth said, in response to concerns about enrollment. The district had projected a lower figure.

“In general we start off our process being more conservative, and as numbers increase we add staffing,” he said, noting it’s easier to add a teacher than to eliminate one.

Teachers say that’s not enough, and adding staff after school has started is hard on students and teachers once they have begun to bond and a change is made.

Boundary changes

The district has plans to conduct a demographic study to learn where its families live, particularly preschool children. The study will include areas of growth and decline, and community input will be sought this winter. Usually boundary changes include a transition plan for students already attending a particular school who are to be “grandfathered in,” Gronseth said, such as for fourth- and fifth-graders.

“Right now we don’t have all the data we need,” he said. “It’s not just Congdon. It’s an entire district. So, to look at Congdon and say these are the changes that are going to happen for this one school wouldn’t work if it’s going to happen for an entire system.”

Changes could be made to middle and high school boundaries as well, if they make sense, he said.

But parents — expecting a long-term study resulting in short-term notice — say that won’t give them enough time to make decisions about their children’s education. Gronseth said he hopes boundary changes would be set for the start of the 2015 school year.

Parents are frustrated that boundaries have to be redrawn in the first place, but they are resigned to it, said Joshua Bixby, a past School Board candidate whose daughter attends Congdon Park.

“But the frustration now is they don’t feel administration is looking ahead and responding fast enough,” he said, and they want to know what the policies will be. “The district’s slowness to responding means a lot of pain will be felt in terms of class sizes.”

Currently, the Congdon boundary stretches from 14th Avenue East to 40th Avenue East and includes roughly everything below College Street and east of Woodland Avenue.

It’s not just district families concerned with boundary changes, Bixby said. People see home values tied to living within the boundary of a particular school and the ability to sell their house, he said.

Transfers and appeals

Thirteen students applied for a Congdon transfer last year. Eleven of those students were denied, and they all appealed. Seven of those appeals were granted. For this coming school year, 16 transfers were approved and six were denied. Two of those six appealed and one decision was reversed. Districtwide, 99 transfers were approved for next year, or 75 percent.  

The transfer and appeal policies should be addressed soon, said Sarah Beaster, who lives within the boundary area and is a mother of three children who attend Congdon Park. Her two third-graders were in classes of 33 and 34.

“There is barely room to walk in the classroom,” she said, and the number of students makes it hard for teachers to teach to kids’ specific ability levels.

Last year at the school, there were 52 students enrolled who had transferred from another Duluth school, plus another four who had open-enrolled from another district. Conversely, 51 students who live in the Congdon boundary area attended other Duluth district elementary schools last year.

Gronseth and assistant superintendent Ed Crawford — who approves transfers — said the transfer and appeals policies should be revised. The School Board must approve those changes, and plans are in the works to form a committee to look at the issue.

Crawford said the policies are “arbitrary” to an extent, depending on how well some families make their case. Common reasons for transfers include a school being closer to a parent’s place of work or child care. Board member Harry Welty sits on the appeals committee. He’s heard two rounds of appeals so far, and said the panel leaned toward transfer approvals that would send kids to schools that could handle more students. The surprising thing to him, he said, is the number of transfers in general.

“We’re bending over backwards to keep kids in our district,” he said.

Class sizes

Klein doesn’t understand why so many choose Congdon over other elementary schools in Duluth. She noted its high rating on a website used to gauge the quality of schools, and said switching the teachers at Congdon with the teachers of any other elementary in the district would result in the same success of the students attending.

Beaster’s family likes the school because the principal, Kathi Marshall, and the PTA, she said, are receptive to the needs of students.

“We have amazing teachers who have worked really hard given the class sizes,” she said.

But staff members struggle to meet the needs of all students, said LeVearne Hagen, a Reading Corps literacy tutor at the school who also has a child there in third grade.

“People don’t like the word ‘crisis,’” she said. “I find it to be a crisis.”

Third-grade teacher Carol Gallinger — a district employee for more than 30 years — has a class of 34. She’s taught a class of more than 30 kids each year for at least four years, she said, but is teaching only her second year at Congdon. Generally schools prefer to keep elementary classes below 30.

 The number makes it difficult for her to have the space to hold work centers, which focus on reading or other enrichment or remedial skills. She’s lucky to have parental support in the way of help in her classroom, along with a “grandma” who also comes in to work with students.

“We’re offering kids many, many good things despite the class sizes, but it doesn’t mean it makes the class sizes OK,” she said.

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