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Ashland parents want smaller classes

A group of parents upset with large class sizes in Ashland elementary schools has asked the school board to create a task force to address the issue before the next school year begins.

Most of the parents have children in the second grade at Helman Elementary, where class size hovers around 26 students. According to the Ashland Quality Education Model, a second- and third-grade class should have no more than 20 students. The guidelines, based on state recommendations and adopted in 2005, set the standard at 18 students for kindergarten and first grade, and 22 students for fourth and fifth grades.

Class sizes have slowly increased since the standards were implemented, and in recent years the schools have not been below the maximum limit.

"I see it as a very high priority because it's directly related to the quality of education that my son and all the other students will be able to receive," said Liesa Holden, a Helman parent. "There's a reason that 20 students was (the number) selected by the state and adopted by the school board."

Although Holden and other parents said they are satisfied with the overall quality of the Ashland schools, they want to make sure their children aren't missing out on opportunities because teachers' attention is divided among too many students.

"I see how it affects the morale of the children themselves," said Meredith Page, whose son is also in second grade at Helman.

If one child needs extra help or misbehaves, and the teacher is forced to give him or her more attention, the other kids in the class notice, she said. Though she believes her son's classroom is well organized, the class doesn't accomplish as much in one day as his class the year before, which had only 21 students.

"Part of that is that the teacher has to stop and take time for these kids that need special help," Page said. "It's something that needs to be addressed now. This is not going to benefit our kids when they go into middle school and high school if we want to keep those high standards up. Early grades are crucial to the success of the rest of their lives."

Page and other parents have petitioned the school board at the last two general meetings, and they plan to continue petitioning until action is taken.

Parents can expect to see the issue on the board's agenda in March at the earliest, said Superintendent Juli Di Chiro, once they have a chance to analyze the upcoming year's budget.

"I understand their concern," she said. "We all agree it would be great if we could afford to have lower class sizes."

Budget issues have limited the district's ability to meet the recommended class sizes so far, she said. Class sizes have slowly increased since Di Chiro came to Ashland in 2000, as the district has struggled with budget issues related to declining enrollment. Two of the five elementary schools closed in the past four years.

This is not the first time parents have expressed their concerns over the growing size of classes. Last year, Bellview Elementary parents organized to pay for a classroom volunteer after they were told they could not raise funds to hire additional staff, Di Chiro said. Although class sizes have not improved this year, the tide may be shifting.

"We have the same class size level as we did last year," Di Chiro said. "We stopped the trend of getting worse."

Julie French is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.