Fawn Mountain Elementary School is on South Tongass Highway. (KRBD file photo)

How best to keep elementary school class sizes from getting too big was a topic during this week’s Ketchikan School Board meeting. There was a lot of discussion, but no resolution to the complicated question.

The Ketchikan School District has a policy with class-size goals. The goal for kindergarten, for example is 17 to 20 students. But, the policy allows the district to exceed that goal by 20 percent before cutting off enrollment.

Superintendent Robert Boyle said Houghtaling is the district’s largest and most crowded elementary school.

“Grades 1, 3 and 5 are right at the absolute capacity,” he said. “We did close them for enrollment and direct students in those grades to other schools in early, mid-September.”

Board President Matt Eisenhower said the district’s 20-percent leeway has not been used as he thinks it was intended.

“I believe the intent of the policy is to give tools to administrators when necessary, if there’s a reason,” he said. “Maybe we need to strengthen board policy to get feedback to say if you’re going to go above that, you need some explanation back to the board or the superintendent.”

Point Higgins Elementary School is off North Tongass Highway. (KRBD file photo)

An underlying issue is that, in Ketchikan, there is a long tradition of school choice. Board Member Diane Gubatayao said lots of parents have good reasons for choosing Houghtaling.

“We’ve had this discussion before: ‘I work in town, I want my child at Houghtaling close by.’ Things like that,” she said. “I think the tougher decision for us is not so much capping enrollment at grade levels, but really looking at – have we ever looked at, for example, if we shifted to a geographic format for enrollment, how that would change the numbers in classes? I know it’s a volatile issue, but it’s … a hard decision we may have to look at.”

Boyle said that would change the numbers significantly. He said the district could try to enforce geographic-based enrollment, which already is encouraged, but that would limit or do away with school choice.

Board Member Bridget Mattsen notes that Houghtaling isn’t the only in-town school. There are two charter schools located within the City of Ketchikan for families who want their kids close to where parents work.

Boyle said the district does suggest both charter schools when class sizes at Houghtaling fill up.

The Valley Park building within the City of Ketchikan houses Ketchikan’s two charter elementary schools. (KRBD file photo)

During public comment, teacher Sarah Campbell told the board that optimal class size should consider more than just the number of kids in a classroom. Other factors, she said, include: How many students require full-time aides, have individual education plans, or are learning English as a second language?

“How many of the students in that classroom are two years or more behind in reading proficiency, meaning they’re not at grade level?” she continued. “How many of the students in that classroom are in state or foster-care facilities? How many of the students in that classroom were transferred from another local Ketchikan school because they were in need of intensive behavioral support?”

And lastly, Campbell said: Is the physical space large enough to accommodate all the students enrolled in that classroom?

The issue of class size likely will come back for more discussion during a future school board strategic planning session.

Also on Wednesday, the Ketchikan School Board accepted the resignation of Board Member Kim Hodne and declared a vacancy. The board is accepting applications through Jan. 3rd for qualified residents interested in filling the seat until next October’s local election.

Applications can be found on the district’s website.