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Parents express concern about Congdon class sizes

Congdon Park Elementary (file / News Tribune)

Congdon Park Elementary parents concerned about class sizes questioned district leaders on Thursday about potential solutions.

“Parents at Congdon understand that there’s no magic pot (of money) and they also understand that they’re lucky and that they have a very privileged life, that we have things that other people don’t. But we’re also frustrated and want it to be better,” said Tracy Robinson, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association. “Parents at Congdon are looking for leadership and innovation and not just the same story about money because we know that.”

Parents asked whether the Duluth School Board is working to improve other schools in the district so that parents don’t feel like they must enroll their children at Congdon Park.

Congdon Park first grade teacher Leah Klein pointed out that class size was the biggest concern when she began teaching 40 years ago and “it’s the biggest disappointment of my teaching career that nobody can figure it out.” She said she’s retiring after this school year because of class sizes.

“I wished the board and the superintendent and the powers that be would say this more often. Your child can go to Myers-Wilkins, get the same curriculum, get the same specialists, get extra help and have the same amazing teachers,” Klein said. “It’s just walls. The district is amazing across the board. Nobody should fear that their child should have to go to Lowell, that their child has to go to Lester Park. It doesn’t matter.”

The school’s projected enrollment for this school year was 587 students, but the school is now at 611 students and is projected to have 612 next school year, Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. The school’s capacity is 600.

Gronseth agreed the school is understaffed, partly because its enrollment has increased by about 30 since the start of the school year.

Congdon Park Principal Kathi Kusch-Marshall said the district is being responsive to the numbers and they’ll figure it out.

“It will be OK. We can realign a few things and yes, it looks like next year, based on the projections right now, we’ll be adding a couple more classrooms. We have room. It’ll be tight, but we have room,” she said.

The School Board will discuss whether to change school boundaries in light of a new demographic study presented earlier on Thursday, Gronseth said.

The board needs to approach the larger impacts and effects of changing boundaries, board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp said. She noted that the board has focused on providing community schools and immersion programs to attract families to certain schools.

All schools start with the same amount of funding for teachers, based on a ratio for each grade that the district has used for the past five years. Schools receive additional funding from various sources that can be used to lower class sizes.

If Congdon Park requests more money, it’s taking money away from other schools that need it, and enrollment needs to be juggled some other way if parents aren’t willing to pay more in taxes, said Matt Hoeschen, a Congdon Park parent and board member with the Duluth Full Service Community School Collaborative.

He encouraged parents to visit other schools in the district, pointing out that there’s a difference between equality and equity.

“Equality means that we all get 21 kids in our classroom. That’s a lot different from equity. Equity means that we have to divide up the money as a district so that it’s fit to the people who need it the most and to the people who still need it, and that doesn’t mean that school needs aren’t important. No one disagrees that classes are too big and teachers can’t teach,” he said.

He continued, “As the school with the most amount of privilege, let’s just be honest, is our goal here to take money away from other schools? No, we want to be able to use the money we have coming to us to be able to make this work right.”

Hoeschen said the solution is changing school boundaries because Congdon Park’s large class sizes aren’t going to be solved by a few students transferring schools.

“We’ve been in this stalemate going on and on and on, but the issue is just bigger than Congdon, although it’s very real here. It absolutely is,” Hoeschen said.

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