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Buffalo school board wants to slash elementary class sizes

The Buffalo School Board on Wednesday directed the administration to come up with a plan to improve reading in early elementary grades by dramatically reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grades.

“That can be the legacy of this board,” said board member Larry Quinn, Finance and Operations Committee chairman.

The board also received an update on the search for a superintendent and on the district’s condom-distribution policy.

The conversation about improving elementary reading started with questions about whether the district was appropriately spending $4 million earmarked for reading coaches that typically provide both student instruction and teacher guidance in school buildings.

Chief Academic Officer Linda Cimusz said all principals find these coaches to be valuable. But she also said that in an ideal world, she would prefer to see the district adopt a districtwide program that would reduce all class sizes in grades kindergarten through three to between 15 and 18 students per teacher. She added that the teachers, ideally, would be dually certified in both elementary education and reading.

Board members agreed that such a concept deserves further investigation and support.

“We cannot keep producing generation after generation of kids that cannot read,” Quinn said, adding, “This is a matter of life and death. There seems to be unanimity that this is a critical thing.”

“If we do this, there has to be accountability,” added board member Theresa Harris-Tigg. “As a district, let’s do this.”

Cimusz agreed to work with staff and come back to the school board with some options for them to consider before she leaves her position at the end of June.

Cimusz’s recommendation draws from a well-known Tennessee experiment on class sizes in the 1980s that found dramatic improvement in student literacy and achievement when children in early elementary grades were placed in small classes of roughly 15 students. The study found the impact on minority students was especially high and helped close the minority achievement gap.

While a number of studies have shown smaller class sizes improve elementary student performance, the trade-offs are big. Districts attempting to lower class size this dramatically must not only find the physical space to do it, but also find millions of dollars to pay for it. This coming school year, for instance, the district has committed to spending an additional $2 million to reduce kindergarten class sizes from the high 20s down to 20-to-25 children.

“Let’s do this thing right,” Quinn said. “All I’m saying is, if we do this thing right, there’s going to be choices to make.”

In other news, Darren Brown, the associate superintendent for human resources, informed the board that the district has officially received seven applications for the superintendent’s job. The job opening will remain posted until June 5.

Finally, the board received an update on the district’s proposed condom program, which would make free condoms available to all high school students, except for those whose parents opt out of the program.

The board will be asked to vote on the policy on June 24.

For new information on the superintendent search, visit the School Zone blog at buffalonews.com/schoolzone email: stan@buffnews.com