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By Terry Dean
Increasing enrollment at Oak Park School District 97 is making it tougher to maintain a desired goal: smaller classrooms.
Enrollment this year is just over 5,800 and is projected to go higher in the coming years. The increase is largely tied to all-day kindergarten, which launched in 2009, but also from new families moving into the district.
The current enrollment has been manageable, said D97 Supt. Albert Roberts, but conversations are taking place about how to keep class sizes smaller.
A range of 19-24 students per class is where the district would like to be, Roberts explained. Some schools, however, have classes slightly above that range, though Roberts said it's not unusual to have a range of 20-25 kids per classroom. The district doesn't want to go higher than 25.
"If we're below 25 students in a class, we're in pretty good shape," Roberts said.
Roberts would prefer to see as few as 17 students per class in the lower grade levels. It's not entirely about the size of a class, Roberts noted, but the quality of teaching.
The district, he said, has ways of maintaining adequate class sizes. Scheduling can be tweaked in some of the buildings. The mixed-level approach creates classes comprised of students at different grade levels. Whittier School has had mixed or multi-level classrooms for years. Roberts said redistricting is not an option at the moment. But permissive transfers of students from building to building remain an option for parents. This year, 153 students were allowed to transfer to another school.
Still, available space at some of the buildings is a growing challenge.
Longfellow School, which has the highest enrollment among the elementary schools — 664 students — has had to juggle space. The school auditorium is currently used for two music classrooms. The teachers and students, according to Principal Angela Dolezal, are adjusting to the space issues.
"We have a great staff that's willing to do what needs to be done to provide a quality education to students," she said.
A couple of her classrooms are just above 25 students — one at 27 and one at 26.
Next year, Longfellow might add a fifth classroom, Dolezal said, but her school is not at a point where they'll be adding onto the building, as was the case with Lincoln School last year, which added a second floor. Along with all-day kindergarten, Longfellow has also seen new parents moving into the community, Dolezal said. Roberts said the district has noticed a number of home sales around the Longfellow neighborhood.
Longfellow also has the largest pre-school program, 123 kids, in the district, Dolezal noted.
At the middle schools, space and classroom size may be the biggest challenge.
Both Julian and Brooks are 10 years old and are nearing their enrollment capacity. Julian has the most students at 935, with Brooks at 884. Each building was designed to hold 950 students. Roberts said there is room in the building to accommodate students via scheduling adjustments.
He stressed that the district will have to think about how to use time and existing space differently.
"We're watching the numbers and demographics," he said. "Class size is important and something we need to pay attention to, but it's the quality of our staff and support of parents that can really help us do the best we can for kids."