Montgomery Co. officials seek answers on school class size

ROCKVIILLE, Md. — Montgomery County Public Schools received millions of dollars to help cut class sizes in an effort to improve student performance and narrow the achievement gap. But not every school has seen the number of students in classrooms reduced — and officials say that’s by design.

“Some classrooms don’t need a reduction,” said Jack Smith, Montgomery County’s superintendent of schools. “Some need a reduction, but we did that with a para-educator and not with another teacher.”

Using para-educators can provide the extra attention children may need to reinforce lessons without having to cover the extra expense of adding teachers, Smith said.

Smith appeared before the Montgomery County Council to talk about what’s being done to put the $38 million earmarked for closing the achievement gap to work.

Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice said he supports the approach that Smith has come up with, especially making sure that targeted schools, such as those with high rates of poverty, get the smaller class sizes.

“I know it’s difficult for some people to accept and understand that there’s a lot of investment that goes in and they might not see it in their particular school,” Rice said. “It’s unfortunate, but the reality is that we have to put the investment where the most need is.”

But Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner asked Smith and several staffers who appeared at the council session, to help him explain the approach to his constituents.

Berliner — who serves a section of the county known for its affluence — said he had heard from a constituent with a child at Cold Spring Elementary School. He read from the email: “It is unacceptable that the kindergarten has continued to increase in class size with no modification to staffing, and they have 30 kids in their kindergarten class!”

Berliner then asked Deputy Superintendent Dr. LaVerne Kimball, “What do I say to them?”

Kimball explained that Cold Spring has one kindergarten section. So instead of splitting the students into two classes of 15, a para-educator was assigned to the kindergarten, “which enabled them to have very small instructional groups,” she said.

Smith, who is just two months into his job as superintendent of Montgomery County schools, said he’ll continue to take feedback on his approach to closing the achievement gap. After the session with council members, he told reporters that charting that progress will include reporting out student performance each spring, including classroom work, local assessments and outside testing results.

Smith said he wants teachers to take a close look at student performance day-by-day, month-by-month, so that if there’s a problem with student progress, it can be addressed sooner rather than later.

At one point, he explained, indicators of success or failure come early in a student’s career. Without close monitoring and early intervention, at-risk students can end up on a path that leaves them behind.

“They start dropping out in their heads in the fifth grade,” Smith said. “They start talking about it in middle school. And they actually act upon it in high school.”

Smith said his goal is to make sure that every student graduates ready to work in a job that provides a living wage or ready for college.

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