LEWISTON — In Lindsay Putney’s crowded kindergarten room Thursday at Farwell Elementary School, her 25 students worked on art.

Experts say 25 kindergarten students in one class is too many. State regulations call for kindergarten classes to be no more than 20 students per teacher. A growing student population has created overcrowded schools with classes of 25 to 28 students, which are common at Farwell and other schools.

But class sizes will become smaller when the big elementary school opens in 2018, according to a new policy unanimously passed Monday by the Lewiston School Committee.

Under the new policy, Putney’s class, as well as all other kindergarten classes, will have no more than 20 students. First- through sixth-grade classes will have no more than 22 students.

The school will consolidate Martel and Longley elementary schools, plus take students from other city schools, which will reduce class sizes citywide.

Meanwhile, the big elementary school is getting smaller. (See related story). The most recent projections show that it will open with a student population of 888 — far less than an earlier projection of 1,200.

In the proposed, $64.9 million school budget up for referendum in May, 32 positions, mostly teachers and ed techs, have been added to reduce class sizes.

Overall, the budget is up 6.1 percent. If passed, it would mean the owner of a home valued at $150,000 would pay $81 more a year in property taxes.

More positions will be recommended in the budget next year, Superintendent Bill Webster said.

“Our hope is even if we don’t have the rooms today, by adding teachers and co-teachers, we’ll already have the staff,” when the new school opens, Webster said. Meanwhile, more classes will get more help with “co-teachers” helping teachers in crowded classrooms.

The School Committee has focused on reducing class sizes, according to Committee Chairman Jim Handy.

“We’ve made adjustments this year to the student-teacher ratio” by hiring more teachers, he said.

It does increase the budget, Handy said, adding that it’s a necessary expense.

“There’s no question you have to pay for it,” Handy said. “It’s good for the education of our children. It’s essential to the success of kids.”

That’s especially true with Lewiston’s student population, which has high numbers of English Language Learner students, a high special ed population and high numbers of students who come from poverty.

“You put all those things in the classrooms, our kids would be more successful with reduced numbers,” Webster said.

Farwell Principal Althea Walker said moving toward smaller classes is very good news.

“It makes a huge difference, especially in the younger grades,” Walker said. “What happens (is) we have students coming into kindergarten and first grade with no pre-readiness skills.”

When five or six students are lacking skills (cooperating or sitting still and listening) in a class of 25 or more, teachers aren’t able to meet individual needs and help them catch up, Walker said. They need to get to a level where by the time they’re in the third grade, they’re doing third-grade work.

It’s important, she said.

“The federal government decides on how many beds for prison they’re going to fund in the future by the number of students reading below grade level by the third grade,” she said. “There’s a direct correlation between literacy skills and choices made by adults. It’s very scary.”

Even at Farwell, a school that has more middle-class families than other Lewiston schools, “on a daily basis, we have students in crisis because of the trauma they’re facing at home,” Walker said. Children come to school hungry, tired and scared.

Reducing class sizes “is going to allow teachers to give more individual time,” she said. The School Committee is to be commended for adding more staff to reduce class sizes, Walker said.

“It’s a difficult budget time,” Walker said. “It’s tough to say we’re going to support this.”

‘Big’ school not so big — would hold 888

LEWISTON When Lewiston officials first debated building a big elementary school combining Longley and Martel and relieving overcrowding at other schools, enrollment was estimated at 1,200 to 1,300.

That number was based on recent enrollment growth.

Then a study in December concluded the kind of growth the city has had would not continue. The study dialed down the projected student population to 950.

Now, Superintendent Bill Webster said student population for the new school is being planned at 888.

“The biggest reason is the state will only support a five percent growth factor,” as opposed to the 10 percent Lewiston predicted. “That’s been their standard,” Webster said of the state.

He said he’s a little concerned that what happened when the last two schools opened Farwell in 2007 and Geiger in 2010 will happen with this school. Farwell and Geiger were full on opening day.

But the 5 percent growth allowance for new school construction “is the state’s standard,” Webster said. “Most districts have had declining populations.”

An elementary school of 888 isn’t that big for Lewiston. There have been times when the number of students at Montello Elementary has approached 900.

Meanwhile, a site selection committee has been meeting to consider numerous sites to build the school in the Longley or Martel downtown districts. The committee has narrowed possible sites down to nine, Webster said. It plans to narrow the sites further before bringing in outside consultants for environmental testing, Webster said.

“Our hope is to have a recommendation to the School Committee in June.”

The new school budget is not yet developed, but typically, an elementary school of that size would cost about $40 million, of which the state is paying 95 percent.

The budget and project development will be overseen by a building committee, which is now being assembled. Plans call for that group to hold its first meeting by mid-April.

Members of that committee are School Committee members Tom Shannon, Jim Handy and Linda Scott; Lewiston Planning Board member Bruce Damon, elementary school Principals Kristie Clark (Longley) and Steve Whitfield (Martel), school department staffers Webster, Controller Elaine Runyon, Facilities Director Joe Perryman, and community member Ronnie Paradis.

Other members being added are two teachers and two parents each from Martel and Longley.

An elementary school for 888 students should be on 28 or 29 acres, which isn’t always available in the urban areas, Webster said.

Once a site is selected, there’ll be a public straw poll vote possibly in June, then work will begin on conceptual design with architects Harriman Associates.

The goal is to bring the new school referendum to voters in January or a bit later, Webster said.


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