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Ogilvie looks to ease burden in oversized kindergarten classes

Parent Angelica Rivera sees firsthand how large class sizes can affect a child’s education.

One of her twin sons attends a kindergarten class with 20 students, some of whom have special needs. That class has two adults – a teacher and an aide. When Rivera visits, the students remain focused on their task, their instructors helping them stay on target.

Just across the hall at School 54, her other son’s teacher struggles to keep up with the needs of her 25 little charges. She has no extra help, so keeping order and targeting each child’s needs can be a challenge.

“You can see she’s trying very hard to get all of the children to concentrate, but they’re little,” Rivera said. “My son came home the other day and said, ‘Mom, I have a headache. They are all talking so loud.’”

Situations like the one Rivera’s son is experiencing have become increasingly common in Buffalo Public Schools, where the majority of kindergarten classes have at least two dozen children. Six have more than 30.

That’s far greater than the norm in other districts and states; some cap kindergarten classes at 15 students.

Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie plans to ask the School Board tonight to spend about $1.5 million to hire classroom aides to assist in the supersized kindergartens. In future years, he’d like a policy that limits kindergarten class size to 20 or 25, well below the 30 allowed by contract now, but still more than in many other states and districts.

“When we look at kindergarten we see that we have a fairly consistent pattern,” Ogilvie said. “Many of them are unacceptably large.”

Some educators argue that smaller class sizes are essential to making sure students get the attention they need, especially in younger grades when they are still learning classroom routines and behavior.

The problem has become especially pronounced this year, in part because Buffalo saw its kindergarten class grow by 110 students following a new state law that mandates kindergarten for 5-year-olds.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore has written Ogilvie complaining about the large kindergarten classes and the long-term impact on graduation rates.

Ogilvie said the large kindergartens are fallout from years of filling classrooms based on what is allowed under the teachers’ contract – not what is educationally sound.

An analysis shows that at least 23 states have laws either mandating or incentivizing school districts to cap kindergarten class sizes at 20. Some even set the maximum allowable kindergarten class size at 15.

New York has no such restrictions. But in Rochester, the teacher contract requires reasonable efforts to contain class sizes to 22 students from kindergarten to third grade. A kindergarten class there can never exceed 26 students.

Buffalo, however, has negotiated a much higher limit. The Buffalo Teachers Federation contract sets the maximum class size for kindergarten at 30.

“It’s better to spend that money in kindergarten now, than on remedial programs down the line,” Ogilvie said of the possible repercussions of the large class sizes.