ST. CHARLES – The question of class sizes was one of the issues discussed by candidates running for St. Charles District 303 School Board during a candidate forum on March 14 hosted by the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County.
Garrett Seaman, incumbent Board President Kathleen Hewell, Jillian Barker, Becky McCabe and Michael Bryant are running for three four-year terms on the board. In addition, Poonam Gupta-Krishnan and incumbent Board Vice-President Nicholas Manheim are running for an unexpired two-year term on the board. The election for the four seats on the District 303 Board of Education will take place on April 2.
In answering a question about what should be the ideal cap for kindergarten through second grade classrooms, Bryant, a business education teacher with the Batavia School District, said he knows the importance of class size.
"The ability to reach every kid when you do have those big numbers is difficult," he said. "At the same time, I don't know if I can set an absolute number as to what class size needs to be. You need to look at the students in the classroom. What needs do those students have? There are so many factors as to what is going to determine the success of a student. You need to have a solid teacher that knows how to teach the kids, to help the educational needs of the students."
Hewell, who was first elected to the School Board in 2003, agreed with his assessment.
"It's not the size of the classroom, it's the quality of the teacher and resources behind that," she said. "I would like to say that the average class size is our school district right now is 22 to 22.5. The cap was 29, up until this year. Closing one school, we were able to group kids better and the class size went down went down from 29 to 27 as a maximum. To be able to do that and still keep the tax rate at a very low level I think is a real success."
McCabe, a former District 303 assistant superintendent, also previously taught K-2.
"I have seen outstanding instruction with 29 kids and terrible instruction with 13," she said. "So it is about the teacher in front of the kids. It is about meeting their needs and building those relationships. I would say that it gets more difficult with more kids. You just don't have the time in your school day to meet every need. You go home thinking about them and what you missed and if you answered all their questions. Those are difficult things when class size goes up."
Seaman also previously taught grades K-2 and his wife is a second grade teacher.
"Class size comes up quite a bit at the dinner table with us," he said. "One thing I will say is there is no magic number with this. I am absolutely a proponent of active learning for our little guys. It is absolutely critical in the early years as is effective instruction. We need to empower our building principals to be able to make decisions and give them more empowerment in the placement of students."
The candidates also were asked if they would make changes to the district's academic curriculum. Barker, executive director of curriculum and instruction for a group of therapeutic day schools in the area, said she thought the district overall was doing well academically.
"We do have an issue where we have disparity between the elementary schools and the high schools," she said. "At this point, I do see there is room for growth and improvement, but overall, yes, we do well as a district."
They also were asked about if they were confident in the decisions being made by the school board concerning the district's facilities and how they would ensure the best decisions are being made about the district's facilities. Gupta-Krishnan, who previously taught middle school math and science in India and who currently mentors St. Charles East High School students in the Incubator Program, said she would like to see a more comprehensive evaluation done of a building.
Board members are currently weighing what to do with Haines Middle School once it closes its doors at the end of the school year.
In 2016, the board approved a plan to upgrade Wredling Middle School, renovate Thompson Middle School and close Haines Middle School by fall 2019. Officials said the district would save $2.4 million a year in operational costs by closing Haines and taxpayers would see a significant reduction in the district's portion of their property taxes because of the payoff of bonds in 2018.
"I would like to have multiple options to share with the community and come to a decision that makes sense for all of us, not just on the board level," she said.
Manheim, who is serving his second term on the School Board, said he thought the board has made good decisions about the district's facilities.
"Sometimes they are hard decisions," he said. "When I got on the board, not all of our schools were air-conditioned. And now from a classroom setting they are all air-conditioned. And I think that's really important. We had days that were being called because it was too hot. And now we have the big discussion with Haines."