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Plans to combine fourth- and fifth-grades next year topped discussion items at the Wednesday, June 17 meeting of the Diagonal Community School board of directors.
After lengthy discussion, the board voted to combine the fourth- and fifth-grade students under the instruction of Zach Robinson with assistance from superintendent Karleen Stephens.
The plan comes in response to a hefty increase in costs related to newly hired staff.
Stephens explained the district faces over $100,000 in increased staffing expenses, due primarily to hires mandated by the State of Iowa.
For the 2019-2020 the state required the district to hire a full-time school nurse at a cost of $44,105.04, including salary, taxes, and benefits.
To meet the state’s “offer and teach” mandate for 2020-2021, the district was forced to add a full-time secondary math teacher at a cost of $43,958.72, including salary, taxes, and benefits.
The “offer and teach” mandate states that any course that appears in the high school’s required curriculum must have students enrolled. Otherwise, the curriculum would be out of compliance with state requirements.
A replacement music teacher was added for 2020-2021 at a difference in salary, taxes, and benefits of $12,250.85 over the previous teacher.
In total, the district will need to find $100,314.61 to satisfy the staff expense, over $88,000 of which is out of the district’s control.
Superintendent Stephens explained the $100,000 increase is not a one-time cost, but one the district’s budget will need to absorb year after year.
Stephens offered the board a plan that would somewhat offset the economic impact of the new staffing.
In light of the resignation of fourth-grade teacher Shelly Lilienthal (which was accepted at Wednesday’s meeting), Stephens suggested the board consider combining the fourth and fifth grades under one instructor – current fifth grade teacher Zach Robinson.
A decision to not replace Lilienthal’s position would save the district over $46,000.
Stephens said she had met with parents of next year’s fourth and fifth graders to gauge their response to the proposal prior to bringing it to the board.
She reported some were against the idea while others were not opposed.
Ann and Darin Schlapia, parents of an incoming fourth-grader, attended the board meeting to voice their opposition to the proposal.
In light of the instructional days missed due to the COVID shutdown, Ann stated now was not the time to divide the teacher’s attention between two different grades of students.
She questioned how the missed instruction will be made up and how much knowledge the students have retained after being out of the classroom since mid-March.
She also questioned the logistics of the plan, whether the teacher would alternate between classrooms or if all students would be in one classroom. If split, she asked, who would be supervising the other half of the students.
Beyond the regular classroom, Schalpia asked about students who need extra help, not just with academics but with social/emotional support as well.
“Now is not the time to change the model,” she said.
Stephens explained modern curricula “spirals” as new material is introduced as old material is reviewed on a continuous basis.
She added weekly testing will monitor levels of individual learning so no key concepts are overlooked.
Secondary principal Lorna Paxson agreed, stating assessment at the beginning of the school year will be key in determining students’ learning levels.
Stephens noted the Diagonal school district had experience with combined classrooms. For seven years in the 1980s, Diagonal fifth and sixth grade students were combined with Stephens as the instructor. In the 1990s, fourth and fifth grades were combined for three years. More recently, the kindergarten and first grade and the pre-school and kindergarten were combined under Terri Newton for one year in each case.
At the conclusion of the discussion, the board approved the proposal to combine the two grades with the understanding that student academic achievement and social/emotional needs would be monitored closely and staff will often and regularly communicate with parents regarding their student’s progress and well-being.
Having experience herself in a combined classroom environment, Stephens stated she would be actively involved in the new arrangement.