Durham County

Class-size mandate to put a big squeeze on some Durham schools

Watch: Forest View Elementary to feel space squeeze under state’s K-3 class-size mandate

Principal Neil Clay of Forest View Elementary School takes a look at his school space issues.
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Principal Neil Clay of Forest View Elementary School takes a look at his school space issues.

The struggle for classroom space is real for students and teachers at Forest View Elementary School.

The school, located in the western part of the county on Mt. Sinai Road, is currently 100 students over capacity, and its teachers and staff have been forced to stretch their creativity to limits to accommodate them all.

And after the controversial K-3 class size mandate is factored into the equation for next school year, the Forest View staff will be forced again to tap into their inner-Hephaestus to come up with nine additional classrooms needed to accommodate the roughly 769 students projected to enrolled there during the 2018-19 school year.

Next year’s enrollment at Forest View is expected to remain virtually the same as it is this year, but because there will be fewer students in each K-3 classroom, the school, like other elementary schools across the state, will need more classrooms and teachers to handle enrollments.

The Durham Public Schools system projects the district will need 63 additional classrooms — the equivalent of two elementary schools — and 90 teachers to meet the class size mandate.

District leaders have not put a price tag on the 63 classrooms, but the 90 additional teachers will cost about $6 million.

To add more classroom space at Forest View, the district’s administration wants to install six connected modular classroom units, along with restrooms and offices, parallel to the school’s rear wing.

“This would be a self-contained, single building that would go parallel to the the back wing next to the bus lot,” said Jon Long, the school district’s executive director of construction and capital planning.

The school board will consider the administration’s recommendation on Thursday, Jan. 11, when it meets at 4:30 p.m., for a work session at the Fuller Administration Building, 511 Cleveland St.

The price attached to the six-classroom trailer complex is a hefty one. The complex could cost nearly $800,000 depending on the level of site prep work that’s needed.

DPS could save $100,000 if it isn’t required to build a stormwater pond to treat and slow rainwater runoff from the site. A site plan review will determine whether the stormwater pond will be required.

“There are things in there [the cost estimate] we may or may not need,” Long said.

If approved by the board, the trailer complex would give Forest View six additional classrooms. The school already has two trailers on site

To address the current space crunch, Forest View Principal Neil Clay said the staff had to be creative.

“We had to put our music teacher on a cart,” Clay said, explaining the steps taken at the school this year to accommodate its large enrollment. “We didn’t lose music, but we lost the space. She [the music teacher] visits other classrooms to teach music.”

Forest View also divided one large science classroom into two classrooms, and converted the teachers lounge into classroom space.

“The teachers don’t have a lounge, so teachers will either eat in a room or with the students in the cafeteria,” Clay said. “Of course we miss having a lounge, but teachers are OK with that.”

Also, Forest View created classroom space in its busy media center and holds some remedial classes in hallways.

“We help a lot of children who struggle, and we have what we call intervention teachers, so we’ve created spaces in the hallways, either with partitions or just with tables and chairs,” Clay said. “That’s where they’re serving children.”

Clay said he remains confident that Forest View teachers will continue to find creative ways to serve students even as the K-3 class size mandate draws near.

“You do come to a point where you can’t keep looking for space you don’t have,” Clay said. “We’ll continue to try and be creative but what you’re left with is taking places that have traditionally had classrooms like art, music or computer lab and converting those into classroom spaces,” Clay said. “So, we would still serve the children, but it’s not ideal.”

Dina Niblock, the PTA president at Forest View, said the staff has done a great job under difficult circumstances.

But Niblock, who has a second-grader attending the school, said it’s troubling that Forest View no longer has a music room and that students who struggle academically are being pulled into the hallway to receive the extra help they need.

“How distracting is that for a student to be sitting in the hallway to receive instruction and to have people walking back and forth?” Niblock said.

She said reducing class size is a “wonderful” idea but lawmakers must fund the mandate if they’re serious about improving academic achievement.

“It doesn’t just magically happen,” Niblock said.

Clay agreed, joining the chorus of North Carolina educators who have called on the General Assembly to send money to help pay for the mandate.

“The idea of smaller class sizes in and of itself is a good thing and I think we will agree on that, but you’ve got to fund them,” Clay said. “We don’t want to have to rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Earlier this year, DPS considered moving two trailers from Pearsontown Elementary School to Forest View to accommodate growth, but tabled that idea when bids to move the two mobile units came in at around $250,000.

Forest View isn’t the only DPS school that will need to add multiple classrooms because of the class size mandate.

According to a district report, Creekside Elementary School will need 15 additional classrooms and Watts and Glenn elementary schools will need seven. Meanwhile, Hope Valley Elementary School will need six and Club and Easley elementary schools will need five each.

The classroom needs are what schools need before mobile units are used at schools. Some schools might, for example, require fewer classrooms if existing mobile units are in good working condition.

None of the district’s other elementary schools will need more than four additional classrooms.

DPS has created a K-3 Class-size Project Team to develop standards that are implemented “consistently and equitably” as the district works through the classroom space issue created by the state mandate.

Critics of the mandate fear it could force districts to cut arts, physical education and library programs and increase class sizes in grades 4-12.

Supporters of the mandate approved by the state’s Republican-led General Assembly contend smaller class sizes will help improve academic outcomes for the state’s youngest students.

The Durham school board and the Durham Board of County Commissioners approved a joint resolution last month requesting that lawmakers fully fund the mandate and slow its implementation to give school districts time to address the classroom space challenges and others the mandate will bring.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education adopted a similar resolution. District officials say CHCCS would need to create about 44 additional classrooms to accommodate students as a result of the class-size mandate.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645