After Colorado Springs School District 11 projected that enrollment at Jenkins Middle School would drop to 703 students, the district axed four teaching positions at the school.
Then close to 100 extra kids showed up for classes.
The influx of students at the middle school — which as of this week tallied 794 students — has set off chaos for both kids and teachers, with inflated class sizes, disruptions to class schedules and some educators sacrificing planning periods to take on another course. The school is feeling the pinch as it finds itself caught between the challenges of predicting enrollments and the struggle to find enough educators — problems that are plaguing schools across Colorado and affecting students’ learning as a new school year unfolds.
“What hurts the teachers and what impacts the teachers is simultaneously what’s hurting the kids,” said Meghan Woodring, a sixth grade math teacher at Jenkins Middle School.
Woodring, now in her third year of teaching, is one of the staff members thrust into trying to educate more students, with a few of her classes stretching to 30 or more kids when she was promised her class sizes would be capped at 27 or 28 students. It has created crowded classrooms and also interfered with her ability to give individual students the help they need, including those with a disability and those ready for more advanced lessons. It’s a constant “balancing act” of trying to get through class material without leaving any students behind, she said.
In one of Woodring’s classes geared toward students who need to learn at a slower pace, she and a colleague teach 29 students. Typically, co-taught classes focus only on kids who need extra support, but this year, without anywhere else to send kids who can handle regular math courses, the school dropped those kids in with their peers who need more time and attention.
“These kids who could go faster, could be challenged more, are in a class that’s really not challenging for them at all because there’s really nowhere else to put them,” Woodring said, adding that it hurts everyone “because my attention is so divided.”
The school offered Jenkins another $5,000 — 10% of her annual salary — to pick up an extra class period in place of her planning period this year, but after she spent one month last year covering an extra class, she declined.
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She recalls being exhausted during that stretch of juggling another class, bringing home multiple hours of work each night as she only had time at home to plan her lessons and grade for more than 20 additional students on top of her other four classes.
“My mental health just took a nosedive because of all the extra stress and extra work,” Woodring said, adding that she and her husband agreed “it wasn’t worth taking on the extra work for the extra pay.”
She has plenty of additional students to contend with anyway and can hardly remember their names.
“A short-term play” to keep qualified teachers in classrooms
After a projected enrollment decline, Jenkins Middle School cut two math teachers, one teacher split between science and social studies and one special education teacher. This fall, the school also reallocated positions. In total, four teaching positions were chopped.
Once the middle school counted nearly 100 more students this school year, the district gave back about one-and-a-half teaching positions. That means the school is no longer facing a staffing shortage according to how the district calculates staffing needs based on school enrollment, said Darren Joiner, an area superintendent in Colorado Springs School District 11 who oversees a dozen schools, including Jenkins Middle School.
But it hasn’t solved all the school’s struggles with trying to accommodate the uptick of students. Joiner, who previously served as principal of the middle school for 11 years, said the staffing adjustments have shuffled some kids around as the school has revised the master schedule and added new sections to spread out class sizes, creating wrinkles for some students who develop relationships with teachers only to have to move.
School leaders at Jenkins Middle School could have hired a full-time teacher once the district added more staffing capacity, Joiner said, but with staffing needs in multiple subjects, they introduced extra class sections and asked teachers to voluntarily swap out planning periods for those sections.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s sustainable for multiple years,” Joiner said. “I think it’s definitely a short-term play, but it’s an effective play for one school year. It’s not something that as a principal that you want to be deploying that strategy every year because you don’t want to burn your teachers out.”
It’s become one of the better options for schools this year as applicant pools have dried up, he said. The district has encountered a shortage of quality candidates, and so pulling a current teacher into another class is one way to ensure students have highly qualified educators.
Joiner noted that enrollments in many schools in the district are higher than originally anticipated, an exciting trend for the district of about 22,500 students, one that runs counter to many other districts who have found themselves grappling with declining enrollments. Joiner believes the jump in his schools — 11 of the 12 schools in his domain are seeing higher enrollments than what projections indicated — is driven in part by more students trickling back into area public schools after the height of the pandemic.
“To see this flood of students coming back into our schools says a lot about the quality of what we have to deliver for our families,” he said.
To give the district’s 52 schools some flexibility and be nimble enough to adjust staffing for class sizes, the school board last spring designated part of its budget for 15 additional full-time teaching positions, Joiner said. So far, schools have used funding for more than 11 of those positions to hire new teachers and pay current staff more for committing to more classes.
The district relies on a variety of data to make enrollment projections, looking at historical data to gauge whether a school has increased, decreased or remained stable. It also factors in the number of students moving up to the next grade level, and considers demographic data to understand how many school-age students reside in different neighborhoods, Joiner said.
It’s challenging for the state and individual school districts to accurately forecast enrollments, said Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer of the state education department.
Accuracy largely depends on how sophisticated and experienced a district’s staff is in making enrollment projections, said Mark Rydberg, school finance manager for the state education department.
Projections only become trickier at the school level as families can move between schools within the district, Rydberg said. And in metro areas like Colorado Springs, where more school choice is available to families with options in other districts, charter schools and private schools, there is more movement.
Housing costs, income and the lingering effects of the pandemic are playing into enrollment swings across Colorado, state education officials said.
“People are repositioning themselves coming out of COVID,” Rydberg said, adding that once the state has enrollment figures from this school year, it will be able to better understand if families are flocking back to public schools after the state’s public education system started to recoup students last year.
Meanwhile, in Colorado Springs School District 11, Joiner said that it’s not unusual for class sizes to balloon as high as 34 students in any given year, depending on the class level.
But that feels like an unmanageable ratio for teachers like Woodring.
“Teachers are really stretched to the limit when class sizes are pushing 30 or over 30 as they have been since school started,” Woodring said. “Classes are overcrowded. It’s tough to manage. It’s tough to keep up with all the things to make sure that each kid is getting what they need.”