Riverton, Shoshoni granted waivers from 16:1 classroom ratio

Apr 24, 2012 Staff and wire reports

Two Fremont County school districts are among 20 statewide that have been granted waivers from meeting a state law requiring a 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grades for the 2012-13 school year.

The Wyoming Department of Education announced the waiver list Monday.

Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton is among those granted a waiver from the 16:1 mandate as the district works toward that goal.

The major step taken this year in Riverton is moving all third-grade classrooms into the Rendezvous Elementary school building which allows for hiring an additional eight teachers at the K-3 level in the Ashgrove, Aspen Park, Jackson, and Rendezvous school buildings.

This is expected to bring the local lower elementary student-to-teacher ratio to about 19:1.

In addition, the district is applying to the Wyoming School Facilities Commission for one, possibly two, new school buildings to create adequate classroom space to meet the mandated 16:1 ratio.

School District 24 in Shoshoni also has been granted a waiver, which does not excuse a district from meeting the requirement but does allow more time to comply.

State schools superintendent Cindy Hill said the 16-to-1 ratio is challenging for some districts but she's confident all Wyoming's 48 districts will eventually reach the mandate set by the 2011 Legislature as part a comprehensive education reform initiative.

"It's going to take some a little bit longer than others, but we're all going to get there," Hill said Monday.

Districts are adding teachers and being creative with limited classroom space in order to meet the mandate, she said.

"I would hope that the efforts that were made this spring will not only continue but will lend themselves to other self-regulatory efforts" so that the Legislature doesn't have to impose more mandates on districts, Hill said.

The average size of K-3 classrooms in Wyoming is 17.5 students per teacher. Education experts said students generally perform better academically in smaller class sizes.

State law allows districts to seek a waiver from the Education Depart-ment if they show good reason why they can't meet the standard. For instance, districts with not enough classroom capacity can be excused from meeting the requirement.

Districts that don't meet the ratio and don't get a waiver risk losing their state financial aid. Districts that receive waivers had to include plans for eventually meeting the 16-1 ratio.

The reasons for the 20 waivers granted for next school year vary from district to district. Some cited lack of space to add more classrooms, while others said they had other priorities to spend money on.

Seven of the 20 noted they missed the ratio because of unexpected gains in lower grade enrollment.

Laramie County District 1 in Cheyenne, the state's largest district in terms of student population and the recipient of a waiver, has a ratio of about 20-to-1 mainly because of a lack of classroom space.

"We just don't have space to meet it in the traditional manner of having a classroom available and having a teacher in there with 16 kids," Superintendent Mark Stock said.

In the short term, the district is adding 19 elementary teachers next school year and looking at adding portable classrooms to bring the ratio down to 17.5-to-1, assuming there isn't an unexpected increase in lower grade enrollment, Stock said.

But with projected growth of the Cheyenne area in future years, the district is fighting a losing battle.

"Even if we get to 16-to-1, the growth of our community will tell you that by the time we get there, we'll be growing again and we'll be back up to 18- or 20-to-1," Stock said. "The issue of us getting to 16-to-1 and we're done is not going to happen because we continue to grow, and I think in all likelihood that steady growth will just continue. So we'll be fighting this for many years."

In the long term the district is investigating the possibility of building two new schools dedicated to just taking 5th and 6th grade students in order to free up space in the lower grades, he said.

Other districts receiving waivers are: Big Horn 1 and 2, Campbell 1, Converse 1 and 2, Johnson 1, Lincoln 1 and 2, Park 1 and 6, Platte 1, Sheridan 2, Sublette 1, Sweetwater 1, Teton 1, Uinta 1 and Washakie 1.

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