Parents concerned over Bolinas School class combos

04/20/2017

Bolinas-Stinson Union School District is reconfiguring grade combinations and considering moving younger grades to the Bolinas campus next year—changes that have some parents troubled about the potential impacts.

Two specific issues sparked much of the conversation at Tuesday night’s board meeting: combining third and fourth grades and moving first and second graders from the Stinson campus—which will house the district-run preschool for the first time this fall—to the Bolinas campus, which has typically housed third through eighth graders. 

The discussion also sparked questions among board members about which decisions lie in the domain of staff and which are matters of governance on which the board should weigh in. It’s a particularly pertinent question since the small size of the district—about 84 kids this year—means the administration will probably evaluate class configuration every year, according to district superintendent John Carroll.

District teachers have met repeatedly about which grades to combine for the coming school year, Mr. Carroll said, a process that considered the number of students in each grade as well as student dynamics. 

Staff started out with seven scenarios, but ultimately settled on an option that has kindergartners—which, with 12 projected students, will be one of the biggest grades next year—in one class. First and second, third and fourth, fifth and six and seventh and eighth grades would be combined. That’s a change from this year, which combined kindergarten and first, fourth and fifth, and sixth through eighth, but had second and third graders in individual classes. 

Mr. Carroll considers the configurations a staff decision and not a matter of board governance. “It seems very reasonable to me,” he said of the staff’s decision, which he said was determined to be “the most workable approach.”

Many of those unhappy parents on Tuesday opposed the decision to combine third and fourth graders. A letter that parents of six students sent to the district argued that third-grade is a “key year” for learning and that the focus should be on their academics and social experience, not trying to balance the school at large. They also expressed a number of concerns about next year’s fourth graders, believing the change would amount to “inhibiting their academic pace by having content and material revisited again next year.”

Heather Clapp, the mother of a third grader, said that many parents “feel very strongly” about the matter. “They need to be moving ahead, not slowed down.”

One teacher at the meeting, however, countered that there are numerous ways in which students receive specific instruction, including with aides and a teacher on special assignment to teach math. “I don’t think anyone should be worried about the kids not getting what they need,” she said. 

The parents of younger kids also protested the potential relocation of first and second graders to the Bolinas campus. Parents emphasized how nurturing the Stinson campus is for younger children, who grow from becoming the youngest to the oldest kids at that “gem of a site,” as one parent put it. They wondered if it was really wise to put first graders on the same campus as eighth graders, particularly when issues come up around recess and bathrooms. Some also worried the change would leave the Stinson campus rather empty, with only preschoolers and kindergartners. 

“I’m blown away” that moving the first and second graders was a possibility, said Pamela Springer, adding that the Stinson campus has always been a place for the little students. “It’s just the most important thing to me,” she said.

Mr. Carroll, a former middle school teacher, defended the middle school students from suggestions that they may be too abrasive. “Middle schoolers get a bad rap. They are children. They tend to be really nice,” he said.

One reason for the move, according to a board member, is that the addition of the preschool means that the first and second grade classroom would lose a breakout space. The one teacher at the meeting said there might be a cottage that could be used, while board member Jenny Pfeiffer said that for decades, classrooms had not had such additional spaces. Someone also noted that there may be issues around less bus time for the younger children. 

But Mr. Carroll said there was a lot of information and reasoning behind the potential move that was not fully voiced at the meeting because the principal, Jason Richardson, was out sick.

The disputes left some trustees questioning which decisions were in their purview and which should be left to staff. They intimated that class configurations should probably be left to staff, but the use of facilities seemed a murkier subject. 

Some trustees seemed more inclined to put the decision in teachers’ hands, believing they knew what was best for the students. But Ms. Pfeiffer said that in the past, the board has been involved in facilities use, mentioning a debate some years ago about whether the middle schoolers should be moved to Stinson. “If our parents are passionate about the use of space, I think we as a board need to be able to make a recommendation ourselves,” she said.

Trustee Georgia Woods noted that if class configuration would be an ongoing issue, it would be wise to have a more formalized process. She also said the district should clarify the board’s purview. “Our policy needs to be much clearer in this realm,” she said.

Mr. Carroll said he originally told staff the decision would be theirs. But he also noted that he followed the same process this year as last, not thinking about whether reconfigurations could lead to changes in how facilities are used. “I get this is one of those gray areas,” he said.