Lewiston hires more teachers to create smaller classes

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LEWISTON — Ecstatic about hiring two new teachers to reduce class sizes in kindergarten and first grade, Farwell Elementary School Principal Althea Walker is interviewing teacher candidates this week.

“I am so excited to get those two positions,” Walker said. “That will allow teachers to work in much smaller groups.”

The School Committee on Monday approved hiring six more teachers, five educational technicians and one in-school suspension coordinator. Walker and other principals are hoping to have the new teachers at their jobs when school opens on Sept. 2.

The money to pay for them is mostly from $400,000 in the budget targeted for special education but is not needed, plus some federal grant money.

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Superintendent Bill Webster said the $400,000 won’t be needed for special education because of in-house special education programs he created to keep fewer students from being placed in expensive, out-of-district programs.

The in-house autism programs at Geiger Elementary, Lewiston Middle School and Lewiston High School are working, freeing up money for more teachers, he said.

For Farwell, it means there’ll be three kindergarten classes of 18 students instead of two classes with 27 students; and three first-grade classes with 17 students instead of two classes with 26 students.

Other schools receiving more staff are:

* Geiger Elementary: One kindergarten teacher, resulting in class sizes of 17 instead of 22.

* Longley Elementary: One fourth-grade teacher, resulting in class sizes of 17 instead of 26.

* Martel Elementary: Two ed techs to help with first-grade classes of 26. There is no space for a third classroom.

* Montello Elementary: One second-grade teacher, resulting in class sizes of 20 instead of 25.

* McMahon Elementary: one in-school suspension coordinator.

* Lewiston Middle School: one additional alternative program ed tech.

* Lewiston High School, one tech specialist to give students more support.

Also covered by federal funds will be three special education staffers at the middle school: one functional life skills teacher and two functional life skills ed techs.

Webster cautioned that the number of kindergarten students will increase between now and Sept. 2, making class sizes larger.

“It’s likely we will have another 40 to 50 registrations between now and the beginning of school,” Webster said. “I wish it were otherwise,” but some parents don’t register their child until school starts, he said.

And more than any other grade, Webster said he’s denied requests from parents for their kindergarten students to attend school outside their district until the final numbers are in.

Experts say smaller classes are especially important in the early grades when foundation skills are being built. The two teachers at Farwell will make a big difference for her students, Walker said.

She’s seeing an increase in two kinds in kindergarten students: those who start school knowing their letters, letter sounds, numbers and colors; and those who do not. The latter group needs to catch up and needs more help from teachers, Walker said. Smaller classes make that happen, she said.

When early grades have 26 of 27 students, youngsters who start school behind aren’t getting the skills.

“For the next 10 to 12 years, they could be playing catch-up,” Walker said. Smaller classes “could have a long-term effect in reducing the drop-out rate,” Walker said. “It provides real, big, positive potential for students in Lewiston.”

School Committee member Paul St. Pierre said he’s “very, very pleased we’re adding teacher positions.”

Two parents, including McMahon school parent Janet Beaudoin, told committee members they were happy to hear additional teachers would be hired.

“Thank you so much,” Beaudoin said.

A year ago, she and other parents brought the problem of overcrowded classes to the committee’s attention, asking for more teachers.

In the budget approved in May, the committee approved more teachers, including five kindergarten and five first-grade classes at McMahon, which will mean smaller classes.

Beaudoin said she’s relieved. The problem “seems to be resolved,” she said.

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