Classroom Sizes Raise Questions as School Year Begins in Derry

While enrollment is down for the Derry Cooperative School District, the board and administrators are waiting to see if there are any last-minute registrations. Laura Nelson, superintendent of Derry’s School Administrative Unit (SAU) 10, gave an enrollment report at the Aug. 27 School Board meeting. One day after opening, it gave a snapshot of what to expect, and some areas of concern.
The opening day enrollment was 3,472 students in grades Kindergarten through 8, Nelson said. This compares to 3,550 on opening day 2012-13.

The breakdown is as follows: Ernest P. Barka Elementary School, 586; Derry Village Elementary School, 436; East Derry Memorial Elementary School, 402; Grinnell Elementary School, 394; South Range Elementary School, 365; Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, 719; and West Running Brook Middle School, 570.

While enrollment is down, school choice and other factors have led to an uneven distribution of students. “There are still large classes in ‘pockets’ all over town,” Nelson said.
For example, Barka’s fifth grades have 27, 26, 26 and 25 students respectively, Nelson said. The district recommendation for fifth grade is up to 25 students per class, she said.
Grinnell’s two fifth grades have 27 and 29 students respectively, Nelson said.

Grinnell’s three third grades have 24 students in each class, with the district standard for third grade 22, Nelson said. Board member Wendy Smith pointed out that one class at Derry Village School had only 13 students, and Nelson said that was due to school choice, a program that will be phased out over the next four years.

Nelson and board chairman Brenda Willis met with third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers to discuss the classroom size situation. Estimating is not easy, Willis observed, noting that class rosters are made up in the spring and start out fairly even. But over the summer, people move in and out of town.

Willis said it’s difficult to know how many students will end up spending the 2013-14 school year in Derry because some families are still on vacation or haven’t moved in yet. Other families were confused about Pinkerton Academy’s start date, which came two days later than Derry, and their confusion may have affected their younger students.

“These numbers are the physical bodies that are here now,” she said. Willis expressed concern about the large fifth-grade classes. “We do not have the square footage for that,” she said. “It’s difficult to know the right thing to do.”

Willis said she and Nelson told the teachers they will revisit the issue in a couple of weeks and see if the numbers are holding steady, “and how best to teach these children.” Nelson named school choice as a factor, with 60 extra students going to Barka last year rather than to their neighborhood schools. Special education is also a factor, she said, with some classes smaller by design to serve this population.

Nelson said she had a meeting planned with George Sioras, town Planning Director, to look at building permits and work out some demographics. It may be, she said, that redistricting will become necessary. “The first couple of weeks,” Nelson said, “are subject to change.”