OTTUMWA — Higher than expected student enrollment this year has forced the Ottumwa School District to come up with some creative solutions to make sure every student has an optimal classroom experience.
At Wilson Elementary, that means sending a number of students to attend kindergarten at Eisenhower.
“We have a board policy where we try to keep low numbers throughout our elementary buildings, and that’s one of our focus areas,” said Nicole Kooiker, district superintendent. “So if we could balance that out, it made sense.”
As a policy, the district tries to keep classrooms between 20-25 students. Once it was known that Wilson’s kindergarten classrooms would exceed 25, it was decided to send about 10 of those students to Eisenhower, which had lower than expected enrollment numbers.
Parents of Wilson kindergarteners who had no other children enrolled at the school were approached and asked if they were willing to participate in the program. Those parents who volunteered signed special permission papers allowing the district to transport their children between schools.
Those children arrive at Wilson in the morning, where they board a bus and are driven directly to Eisenhower. They then return to Wilson at the end of the day, where they are picked up by their parents or sent home on their normal buses.
A similar issue occurred at James and Douma, where the district realized the first-grade classes would be oversized. In both instances, additional associates were supplied to lessen the teachers’ burdens.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that accurate class numbers can’t be predicted until registration begins in August, which is often too late to hire additional full-time staff. Kooiker attributed the increased enrollment numbers to the Pickwick Early Childhood Center, which she says helped the district retain pre-kindergarten students.
“Ideally, in a perfect world, we would have known our kindergarten numbers earlier,” said Kooiker. “And would I have added a teacher or so? I would have. But when you don’t know until the middle of August, it’s all about hiring high-quality teachers, and most teachers are under contract by then.”
Kindergarten roundup, which is partially intended to estimate how many students there will be, is held in the spring. But Kooiker explained that few parents actually show up, so it’s hard to use the event as a reliable test for what the district’s enrollment numbers will be like in the fall.
One solution is to make kindergarten roundup more of an event, so that more parents feel inclined to attend. Kooiker has considered offering everything from food and drinks to free school supplies like books.
Another solution is to move registration to the spring. This would give the district the summer to prepare and to make staffing adjustments as needed. Kooiker has also considered hiring elementary teachers to serve as district-wide, “high-quality subs,” who will go where needed and provide teaching on-par with a full-time teacher. These substitutes would work with the understanding that if a full-time position was needed and opened up in the fall, they would take it over.
Going forward, Kooiker is optimistic.
“I do think we’ve done a great job creatively problem-solving how to make everything work, and how to make it work well,” she said.
Kooiker also stressed that despite the fact the district’s numbers were higher than expected, classroom sizes in Ottumwa are still smaller than most across the state. Ottumwa’s small faculty to student ratio is something the district prides itself on and is something Kooiker intends to maintain in the future.