Onslow County Schools Facing Tough Choices To Accommodate Smaller K-3 Class Sizes

Jan 4, 2018

Many school districts across Eastern North Carolina are scrambling to figure out how they will provide enough teachers and classroom space to accommodate smaller K-3 class sizes before they take effect during the 2018 - 2019 school year.  In Onslow County, district leaders are facing additional pressure from growing enrollment.  

Onslow County School Board members and county commissioners meet to discuss next school year's expected classroom and teacher shortages at a special joint meeting on Nov. 1, 2017.
Credit Onslow County Schools

Almost 26,000 students are enrolled in Onslow County Schools, and that number has been growing by about 300 each year, said Pam Thomas, school board chairwoman.  She describes this as a good problem to have because it signals economic growth for the county, Thomas said. 

 "People are coming to Onslow County for a lot of contracted positions in economic development that’s occurring, and they’re bringing younger children with them," she said.  

But it’s been hard for the district to keep up with its enrollment growth – providing enough classroom space and teachers is a yearly struggle, Thomas said.  And when next year’s state-mandated K-3 class size restrictions kick in, the district will need to create 87 additional classrooms and hire roughly 51 new teachers.  

“I wish our legislators would look at the percentage of growth for school systems, and let those school systems make some type of plan of how they can address that growth annually,” Thomas said. 

North Carolina’s current K-3 class size requirements allow school districts greater flexibility than the restrictions set to take effect next year.  Right now, the mandatory average K-3 class size for school districts is 20 students per teacher. But starting next school year, that number falls to between 16 and 18 students per teacher, depending on the grade level.  NC House Bill 13 states school superintendents who fail to comply would lose state funding for their salaries.  

To create more space, the school board is considering a plan to turn music and art rooms into regular classrooms, Thomas said.  This would leave the district 45 classrooms short of what’s needed to accommodate smaller K-3 class sizes.  This move doesn’t mean the district plans to eliminate art, music and physical education from the curriculum, Thomas emphasizes.   

“I don’t think we’re going to do away with them. I don’t think we even have that on our radar. We are thinking, ‘How can we keep them, even though we don’t have a classroom for them?’ That’s what our dilemma is,” Thomas said.

At a meeting with county commissioners in November, school district leaders suggested assigning PE, music and art teachers to carts, which they would use to transport materials from classroom to classroom.  “Would it be the best program if they have to move around? No. I mean I can’t imagine a teacher trying to teach hand building with wet clay and having to move around room to room on a cart,” Thomas said.

Music education professor at East Carolina University Cindy Wagoner shares Thomas’s concerns.  Teaching music from a cart would make it harder for students to fully benefit from instruction, Wagoner said.

“Music is a whole body experience, we move and feel the music, children really need to move to understand music fully, she said." "If they’re in their own classrooms, it appears to me, there might not be that room to move around, and so engagement could be very limited when the classroom itself is designed for desk work.”

If the state legislature issues a waiver allowing the district to increase the number of students in a single PE, music or art class, then the county schools might combine multiple classes in the cafeteria or media center to teach those programs, district leaders say.   But like assigning instructors to carts, this will make teaching those subjects a lot more difficult, Wagoner said.  

“Three classes of a second grade might be more than 54 students. I wonder if anyone really imagines what that’s like -- trying to get that many children participating and checking for understanding and making sure that you’re teaching really well and you’re doing this by yourself in the classroom. I don’t think that’s an ideal situation for students.”

She finds it disappointing that education leaders are forced to have these conversations because music and art classes are integral to elementary student development, Wagoner said. 

“When students immerse themselves in some kind of art form, they’re learning so much about spatial intelligence and creative thinking.  In music, they’re fine-tuning their auditory skills. They start to recognize patterns in new ways. They develop emotional intelligence.  It can help shape their character, intellectual development,” she said.

School district leaders have been working with county commissioners to figure out ways to create more classroom space.  While the county has plans to build an additional elementary school, construction could still take up to three years to complete, said commissioner Mark Price.  That's why adding more mobile classrooms is the most realistic way to create more space by next year, he said. 

“That’s probably the best solution is to bring in more mobile classrooms. Then you’ve got to make use of computer labs, art and music rooms, that kind of thing – areas that weren’t designed for regular instruction, they’re designed for the arts," he said. "But there’s no way that we as a county can solve this problem immediately. It’s going to take time if the state insists on maintaining these classroom sizes.”

Ideally, state lawmakers will give the district some flexibility on the upcoming class size requirements when they meet in Raleigh next week, Price said.  County commissioners will also meet next week. At that meeting, they plan to consider a resolution requesting more leeway from the state legislature.  The school board is drafting a similar resolution, Chairwoman Pam Thomas said.  If state lawmakers refuse to act, then the district will have to make the proposed changes to art, music and PE. District leaders are also considering increasing the number of students in 4-12 classes and reducing the number of Pre-K classes, she said.

“We will do what we’re told to do, and we’ll do it to the best of our ability," she said. "But it’s not always the best education decision.” 

Parents who are concerned about consequences to the class size restrictions should contact their state representatives immediately, Thomas said. 

This advice comes at a time when public education advocates across the state are urging state lawmakers to repeal next year’s class size restrictions or give districts more time to implement them.  They’re also asking state lawmakers to provide additional funding for the HB 13 mandates. North Carolina Association of Educators’ President Mark Jewell says his organization is looking forward to November’s legislative races, when voters will have a chance to elect candidates who support more funding for education.

“We need to reinvest in public education in North Carolina --  return us back to that leader in the Southeast, where everyone moved from around the country because they wanted to put their children in North Carolina public schools," he said. "We can get there, but we need to have the politicians in there who support our children and public education.”

It remains unclear if state lawmakers will take any action to address the upcoming K-3 class size restrictions before school boards have to submit their budgets to county lawmakers in May. Onslow County School Board has planned a joint meeting with county commissioners and state representatives for Jan. 19.