Elementary schools in Medford have learned to live with larger class sizes — and some large school populations — as space limitations remain a looming issue amid continuing enrollment increases.
Medford has almost 7,000 kids this year in kindergarten through sixth-grade — an increase of about 30 students from last year. This year's class average remained consistent with last year’s size at 26 after creeping up from the state average of 25.
“We’re pretty pleased with this year’s size,” said Jeanne Grazioli, the district's director of elementary student achievement. “We work closely with schools, principals and teachers, to decide what's best for the students and teachers.”
Medford lists its ideal range of class size for each grade: 20 maximum for kindergarten and first grade, 25 for second and third grade, and 30 for fourth to sixth grade. It also has a color code system of green, yellow and red to identify how much assistant time a class needs.
This year, Medford stayed within its size range with kindergarten and second, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. First and third grade classes, with 13 classes listed in the red zone, are above the desired range and will receive more assistant time, Grazioli said.
With the exception of a sixth-grade class at Jacksonville Elementary School, all the red-zoned classes were left at the bigger size at the schools’ request, Superintendent Brian Shumate said.
“First is that we don’t have enough space. Two is that the kids settle in pretty quick, and we don’t like to move them,” Shumate told the School Board on Sept. 25. “So we could fix all that red by adding another teacher, but this is what the teachers wanted and requested. The reason why it’s still red is because that’s what the teachers want — to keep the kids intact.”
The district moves and hires more teaching positions and provides more assistant time to reduce or assist oversized classes, Grazioli said. The district hired two more full time teachers this year to accommodate unexpected increases.
When kindergarten enrollment at Hoover Elementary School increased unexpectedly to 26 students per class after school started, the district worked with the school to offer more assistant time rather than create a blended-age class.
“We did have some very high numbers,” she said. "So we offered assistance to each kindergarten teacher there and they were very happy with that solution there rather than trying to break up kids and finding another space.”
The School Board praised the district’s approach of working with teachers who have larger class sizes but did note the looming problems of overcrowded schools.
“So we remained our average as last year — just one (student) above state average,” said Karen Starchvick, School Board chairwoman. “But there are also space limitations. There’s going to be some issues with that.”
The district spent $2 million in 2015 on modular units for elementary schools that were bursting at the seams — Hoover, Jackson, Lone Pine and Wilson. The modular buildings, with capacities of 50 to 100, helped bring down class sizes, Grazioli said.
But Medford elementary schools reported dramatically different student counts 10 days after the start of school, with the largest being Hoover at 742 students, Lone Pine at 616 and Griffin Creek at 598. The smallest enrollments are 413 at Washington, 425 at Jackson and 433 at Roosevelt. Ruch, which operates as a K-8 school due to its more remote location in the Applegate Valley, has 143 elementary students.
The school district has said its options for reducing elementary school sizes include moving sixth-graders out of the elementary schools and into middle schools, in which case, it would pursue a four middle-school model.
In a work session last October, administrators told the school board options include building a new middle school in northeast Medford and repurposing the former South Medford High School building on Oakdale Avenue — now housing Central Medford High School — into a fourth middle school. New construction would require voter passage of a bond measure.
The two-grade middle schools are also large. Hedrick Middle School had 997 students enrolled in seventh and eighth grade after the start of school while McLoughlin Middle School had registered 839 students in the two grades.
The eight middle schools in the Eugene School District, in contrast, range in size from 368 to 599 students in three grades, sixth through eighth. Only three of Eugene's 20 elementary schools exceeded 500 students, according to the district's website, with the largest at 591 and more than half with fewer than 400 students.
The district has expected its enrollment to grow 2.5 percent each year and is considering other options to maximize spaces for the burgeoning elementary classes, including adding more modular units and changing boundary lines.
“We try to fix things before it happened, but sometimes we couldn’t predict (enrollment),” Grazioli said. “But we worked out the best solution for each school this year.”
— Reach reporting intern Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.