Schools fall short of accreditation standards

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There are more students in Kalispell classrooms than state standards allow — but without money for additional staff and room for extra classes, there is no solution in sight.

Dan Zorn, assistant superintendent of Kalispell Public Schools, outlined the school district’s preliminary accreditation summary at the board of trustees meeting Tuesday. The state Office of Public Instruction, which enforces accreditation standards set by the Board of Public Education, should send the district its final accreditation status report in the next month.

According to the preliminary summary, Kalispell schools have 64 accreditation deviations, the vast majority of them in class size.

That’s far more deviations than the district has ever had, Zorn said. Last year, the district had fewer than 10 deviations — although Superintendent Darlene Schottle said last year’s deviation list was exceptionally low.

Zorn said he didn’t know how the deviations might affect the district.

“I’m not quite sure what that will mean in terms of accreditation status,” he said.

The trouble this year comes from having too many students in classrooms. State standards say kindergarten, first- and second-grade classrooms must be limited to 20 students. More students are allowed if teacher’s aides are in the classroom for a certain number of hours.

All of Kalispell’s kindergarten classrooms have 22 or 23 students this year, Zorn said, and many first- and second-grade rooms are out of compliance as well.

“In kindergarten, we were surprised by our numbers. It was way over what we anticipated,” he said.

But the “dings” against the district aren’t entirely accurate, Zorn said.

“We get a ding for every teacher sharing an overloaded classroom,” he said.

There are 15 kindergarten classrooms, three of which have two half-time teachers. The district shows a deviation for every one of those teachers, which means three overloaded classrooms get counted twice.

Trustee Ivan Lorentzen pointed out that even taking that into consideration, the district still has too many deviations.

“It takes the 18 [kindergarten deviations] down to 15, which is in the right direction, but it is still a big issue,” he said.

Schottle said that even though the district doesn’t have enough teachers or aides to cover its students according to state standards, the schools are doing what they can to make sure students get intervention and help when needed.

“Students are getting into smaller class sizes. They are getting more intensive, specialized instruction,” she said.

She said the state needs to look at more than just the bare numbers when considering whether schools are truly “deficient.”

“We want to be looking at outcomes,” she said. “It shouldn’t be just a number. There has to be some outcome basis for some of this accreditation.”

It’s something the district hopes to discuss with the state. The district also will explain the bind it is in when it comes to addressing the deviations. Without an immediate influx of cash or additional classroom space, there isn’t much Kalispell can do about its crowded classrooms, Zorn said.

Zorn said the district possibly could add one classroom at Russell School and maybe three at the old Laser School — now the district’s central supply warehouse — on East Washington Street. But that would displace the functions currently in the building, and the district has nowhere else to house them, he said.

The cost of trying to address every deviation is also prohibitive, he said.

“If we were to fix all of these deviations, it would cost a minimum of $325,000 in the elementary budget,” Zorn said.

The district faces an estimated million-dollar shortfall in its elementary budget next year plus another $1 million deficit in the high school budget.

Zorn’s cost estimate includes deviations in library and counseling standards, in addition to failing to meet standards in class size.

According to the state, Elrod, Hedges, Peterson and Russell elementary schools each should have the equivalent of one full-time librarian on staff. The schools each have the equivalent of 0.8 librarians.

Edgerton Elementary should have 1.5 librarians on staff. This year, Kalispell’s largest elementary school has the equivalent of 1.4 librarians.

The Kalispell teachers union has filed a grievance against the district on behalf of the elementary librarians because of the staffing issue. The board denied the grievance last month; it is expected to go to arbitration in mid-December.

But the libraries aren’t the only rooms that aren’t fully staffed.

The district should have one full-time counselor for every 400 students, Zorn said.

Among its five elementary schools, the district should have the equivalent of about 5 1/2 full-time counselors; this fall, the district’s 2,176 elementary students share the equivalent of 4.4 counselors.

At the high-school level, the district has four “assignment deviations,” all in science.

Those happen when science teachers teach outside their specific subject matter, Zorn said, such as a physics teacher teaching a chemistry class.

Kalispell isn’t alone in not meeting deviations.

Of 822 elementary, middle-grade and high schools in Montan, 43 reported class-size deviations last year, according to an Office of Public Instruction report.

Thirty-five failed to staff their libraries according to accreditation standards, 12 were deficient in the number of counselors and 109 had teachers teaching outside their subject areas.

“I anticipate it will probably get worse,” Glacier High School Principal Callie Langohr said.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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