Dalia Ontiveros reads to her first-grade class at May Roberts School. (FILE/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO - The Ontario School District decided on a major shift in its elementary schools to address concerns raised in recent surveys that identified class size as a key issue, officials said.

District leaders said they acted quickly to take advantage of an infusion of state money coming for the next school year.

But they say the plan could be dropped or delayed if the community opposes it. District officials say they’ll gauge community reaction from an online survey as well as a series of community meetings at elementary schools continuing this week.

Under the plan, the district would shift students in the same grade to a single school. An exception would be rural Cairo Elementary School, which would maintain the traditional kindergarten through sixth grade classes.

Under the plan, the average elementary school class size in the district would go from current 24 students per teacher to about 20 students per teacher for kindergarten and first grade, said Taryn Smith, school district public information coordinator. 

With the exception of kindergarten and first grade, which will have new teachers added, the reconfiguration would not change the class sizes overall, Smith said, but would balance classes so teachers all have about the same number of students. The class assignments now vary.

The change comes as the state prepares to allocate money through the Student Success Act. The district expects some $2.1 million each year over the next three years.

The district faces a deadline in April to propose to the Oregon Department of Education how it would use the state money to improve educational results and better serve students.

If the plan runs into strong community opposition, district officials said they would use the state money to deliver on other priorities identified in the recent survey effort. 

The survey, launched by the district in August, has elicited over 1,330 responses from parents, teachers and students to gauge how they feel the new state funds should be used. The district is continuing to collect new data, Smith said. 

According to Ontario School District Superintendent Nicole Albisu, respondents identified smaller class sizes, access to mental and behavioral health resources, and additional extracurricular opportunities as needs they hoped the state funds could address. 

“One of the opportunities that could address all of these concerns would be to move our in-town schools to the grade level model while also keeping traditional elementary schools available for parents to choose,” Albisu said. 

Under the plan, teachers would stay at their current grade level and move to the school where their grade would be housed.

Kindergarten and first grade would be at Alameda, second and third graders would attend Aiken and fourth, fifth and sixth grades would go to May Roberts. STREAM for kindergarten through sixth would be at Pioneer. 

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Albisu said the elementary change would take up a small portion of the state funding, allowing the district to use some of the $2.1 million to develop other things. 

“We anticipate that the transition would consist of moving costs, adding a few walls, and potentially expanding classrooms,” Albisu said. 

“The bulk of the funding would go towards the expansion of access to mental health resources/personnel, bolstering our extracurricular opportunities for students, updating security at our facilities, among other projects,” she said. 

The school district will continue holding forums this week to assess the community’s stance on the reconfiguration. The schedule includes forums at Cairo and Aiken Elementary Schools at 5 p.m. this Wednesday; a Spanish session at Aiken at 6 p.m., also Wednesday; and at May Roberts Elementary School at 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Thursday. 

At a meeting March 3, Ontario School Board member Eric Evans said, “I don’t know that the message can be, ‘Hey, we are going to decrease class sizes?’ Because in reality, we are and we aren’t. Right? Our average class size has to stay the same because we don’t have facilities that add a whole bunch more teachers.” 

District officials said the elementary school shift was more about balancing class sizes, not reducing them.

However, class sizes for kindergarten and first grade should go down because the plan adds kindergarten and first grade teachers, district officials said. 

“We’re here because we love our students,” Aiken Elementary School principal Tobey Huddleston said at the meeting. 

“I want what’s best for my students. And knowing that this model is such a step up and would provide all Ontario students with more opportunities. Those who need more support. Those who need more enrichment. Knowing that this model fits that... It’s not the perfect model, but the model we have, I’m really excited about because it gives parents options,” Huddleston said. 

She was among several educators who testified in support of the proposal.

However, some board members questioned the plan and how it was rolled out.

 “The problem I see is, we’ve got the cart before the horse,” said board member Derrick Draper. “You’ve done all this work, you haven’t brought it to us until now.” 

 Evans was concerned about basing the change on the survey results.

 “Does the survey really even correlate to grade level schools? I realize it points to your guys’ professional opinion,” he said. “Some people have been like, ‘Wait, grade level schools wasn’t on the survey’, and they’re right.”

District officials responded that they planned to have a survey for parents to take at the forums. 

The proposal has raised concerns from some parents who now drop off their elementary-age children at a single school.

Albisu said that if the district finds the community doesn’t support the reconfiguration, it won’t happen.  

“We want to make sure the district has the support of the community going into a reconfiguration,” she said. 

“Our plan B would still allow for additional mental health supports and resources, security updates, expansion of extracurricular, and more,” Albisu said. 

If the school change is dropped, the real struggle will be delivering on balanced class sizes, Albisu said. 

“We will have to be creative and make efficient use of the space that we currently have in our buildings,” Albisu said. 

At the meeting, district officials also noted that research shows a grade level schools system increases student performance. 

Albisu said that the reconfiguration would allow more collaboration between teachers and principals, more efficient professional development, and more focused grade level teaching, ultimately resulting in increased student achievement.

“If all the grade levels are together, all of those teachers have the ability to meet together in one school and under one time schedule rather than multiple schools and multiple schedules,” Albisu said. 

Additionally, she said the reconfiguration could create a stronger sense of community among students and teaching staff, and expand sports. 

“We understand that change is difficult and that parents genuinely do want what is best for their children and their families,” Albisu said in an email. 

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: ne[email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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