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Newton school administrators see school reconfiguration as positive

New setup provides smaller elementary class sizes, brings back ‘neighborhood schools’

Published: Thursday, April 20, 2017 9:24 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, April 20, 2017 11:36 a.m. CST
Caption
(Justin Jagler/Daily News)
Fourth graders at Thomas Jefferson enjoy a late-morning lunch last week. As part of the reconfiguration of the school district, Thomas Jefferson changed from housing K-3 students to K-4 students.

Newton Community School District is in its first year of reconfiguration into four K-4 schools and a middle school that houses grades 5-8. The new setup has reduced class sizes for the younger children and cut down on travel distance for students across the district.

The previous configuration of two K-3 schools and two schools for grades 4-6 lasted only five years. During that time, Emerson Hough was closed as an elementary school.

Now, Emerson Hough is back in the elementary fold. It joins Aurora Heights, Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson schools in the K-4 arrangement. Student populations at each elementary now hover around 250-275. Last year, Berg Elementary and Thomas Jefferson held 450-500 students each.

Superintendent Bob Callaghan said smaller classroom sizes typically have a positive impact on relationship building with students. Emerson Hough Principal Jolene Comer expressed a similar sentiment.

“It allows our teachers to form even stronger relationships with students and to more effectively differentiate their instruction,” Comer said. “With smaller numbers, our teachers have been able to build connections with students not only in their own class, but also with all students in their grade level.”

The impact has stretched to her role as an administrator, too, Comer said.

“I’m able to visit classrooms on a more frequent basis, which allows me to talk with students about their learning, as well as what’s going on in their life outside of school,” Comer said.

Aurora Heights Principal Jim Gilbert agreed with the impact of smaller class sizes. He also noted additional structural advantages of the new setup. For the first time in five years, students are able to attend “neighborhood schools.”

With the old arrangement, kids transitioned through four different buildings over the their academic careers in Newton. The new configuration is simpler and includes a three-building transition.

“There’s less transition — that’s the big impact,” Gilbert said. “Now, it’s just elementary, middle and high school like it is for lots of communities.”

The idea of “neighborhood schools” also reduces how far many students have to travel. Under the old configuration, an elementary student living right next a school on the south side of town might have to travel to the north side of town, depending on their grade level.

From a transportation perspective, Callaghan said, the impact has been positive. The new setup has also condensed the “walk zone” and provided a greater number of students who live within Newton access to transportation.

“We’ve condensed the walk zone to where if a student lives more than a half mile away from the elementary, we provide them transportation. The distance used to be a mile,” Callaghan said. “For the middle school and the high school, our walk zone has gone from three miles down to one mile.”

Gilbert, who has been with the district for 14 years and had seen three different configurations, said it’s nice to see the return of the neighborhood school situation. However, the new configuration comes with new challenges, too.

In regard to professional learning communities for teachers, there used to be two elementary teams per grade level. Now, four teams exist for each grade level — one at each school. The teacher teams are smaller and more intimate, but making sure they’re on the same page is the challenge, Gilbert said.

As curriculum director, Gilbert’s job is to help coordinate the teams. He said the addition of instructional coaches, which was an initiative born out of the teacher learning and compensation grant, have made that process a lot easier. There’s an instructional coach in every building, and each coach attends principals meetings.

“The challenge is to make sure that everybody at one grade level is following the same content, skills and assessment,” Gilbert said.

Contact Justin Jagler at 641-792-3121 ext 6532 or jjagler@newtondailynews.com

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