2016-09-30 / Front Page

Parents upset over shuffle

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin, left, and Small School principal Diane Lang, standing, address parents at a September 21 meeting who gathered to express concerned over the elimination of one kindergarten class after the start of the school year. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin, left, and Small School principal Diane Lang, standing, address parents at a September 21 meeting who gathered to express concerned over the elimination of one kindergarten class after the start of the school year. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — A missed prediction over the number of kindergarten students has led to some reshuffling of classes, and a few unhappy parents, at one South Portland school.

On Sept. 20, Diane Land, principal of Dora L. Small Elementary School, which serves the city’s east end neighborhoods including Willard Square, sent a memo to parents saying the three kindergarten classes at the school would be consolidated into two. Starting Monday, Sept. 26, the students in Sarah Pike’s class would be divided among classes taught by Karen Williamson and Emily Wright. Pike, meanwhile, would be reassigned as a floating “co-teacher,” helping with math instruction, first at Small School, but eventually to classrooms district-wide.

That prompted a response from one parent, Kate Zellers, who began circulating a petition to call an emergency school board meeting.

“This may not seem like big news, but this will have a huge effect on our children’s first experiences of school, as well as is further evidence of the general incompetency of the superintendent and the principal,” Zellers wrote in an email to the Sentry. “As a teacher myself, I understand that budgets are complicated, however, this issue should have been addressed before the school year began, not three weeks in.”

Zellers teaches third grade in Cape Elizabeth.

According to Superintendent Ken Kunin, who claimed ultimate responsibility for the change, Small School had 39 kindergarten students last May, but an enrollment projection prepared by Planning Decisions predicted 50 kindergarteners this fall.

That never happened, with this years new class landing at the exact same number as last year’s class. With 13 kindergarteners in each of the three Small classes, versus a district policy of between 15 and 20 students per class, the decision was made to reassign Pike. According to Kunin, Pike, a long-time teacher who specializes in math instruction and professional development, was going to embark on a “coteaching” role later in the school year, anyway.

“So, we would have had a substitute teacher in that class on many days anyway,” he said.

On Sept. 21, just before Small’s annual academic open house, about 20 parents met with Kunin and Lang to express their concern over the eleventh-hour staffing change.

“I feel the communication was not handled well,” said parent Tom Mauldin. “If this was on your radar over the summer, or even the last few weeks, an email should have been sent to parents saying, ‘We’re not making any changes yet, but here’s something we’re thinking of doing.’ If something like that had been done I don’t think there would be anywhere near the level of frustration you’re seeing now.”

Kunin agreed with that assessment, laying blame for the delay partly on confusion over enrollment projections.

“Our numbers are not behaving this year as they have in the past across the district, especially at the elementary grade level,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out what that is – is there something going on with housing in young families in South Portland?”

Meanwhile, Lang said parents were not informed of a potential change out of fear they might share with their children, leading to rumors and conjecture on the playground.

“I really wanted the children to be told in a nurturing way of support,” she said.

“It’s not your place to make the decision for us what our kids can and can not handle,” said Zeller’s husband, Niels. “I think kindergarteners can be prepared for change. What is more devastating for them is surprises.”

Meanwhile, another parent, new city resident Judith Kurtz, like Zellers, a teacher, cast doubt on the benefits of having Pike teach alongside other teachers, rather than retain her own class.

“I hear you talking about the really amazing opportunity to spread resources around, but what about the opportunity that landed in our laps to have a really quality class size?” she said. “You just increased kindergarten class size by 30 percent and that’s not insignificant. I feel like you’re really glossing that over. You didn’t ask because I think you knew we’d rally against it, and that makes a really bad first impression for me of a school district that came highly recommended.”

Not all parents were against the change.

“I happen to think 19 or 20 kids is a quite reasonable number,” said Morgan Suta. “If these resources are spread around in a way that will help families and kids who come from much tougher situations than any of us can imagine, if they can benefit from Ms. Pike, fantastic. Yeah, I would have like to have a shot across the bow a lot earlier on this, but I don’t think that’s going to hurt my kid’s education in the long run. My kid does not seem to be particularly freaked out by the change.”

“I don’t think we are sacrificing the learning of students, but we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on that,” Kunin said. “I felt this change was a win-win that would old help to improve learning.”

“You’re saying we’ll have to agree to disagree, but basically you’re saying lump it,” one parent said, claiming, “the school board didn’t know anything about this.”

While there did not seem to be any chance of undoing the change, or calling a emergency board meeting to address the issue, Kunin did say the board is the “ultimate recourse” for parents who think he is mishandling the job.

“I will own that this was not communicated well, but I will not own that the decision itself was a mistake,” he said. “But If the board feels I am not performing adequately, they may choose to not renew my contract,” he said.

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