As Del Norte County Unified School District prepares for the 2018-19 school year, administrators have asked elected officials to weigh in on bringing back combination classes to some campuses.

With declining enrollment and some second, third, fourth and fifth grade classes only housing up to 19 students, district administrators are looking for ways to “get those classes back to the standard size of a classroom,” Superintendent Jeff Harris said Monday.

Some schools have two 4th-grade classes and two fifth grade classes with 17-18 students, Harris said. It might make more sense to have one fourth grade class, a fourth and fifth grade combination class and a fifth grade class, he said.

“That’s just an example, but it wouldn’t be eliminating any of our current teachers, it may just be we did not hire teachers if they were retiring,” Harris said.

The school board on Thursday gave Jeff Napier, the district’s assistant superintendent of business, direction to plan for a “discrete number” of combination classes in a preliminary budget for next year.

About four years ago, when the district first established its Local Control Accountability Plan, which included the district’s greatest needs, its goals and three-year spending plans, it moved away from establishing combination classes for kindergarten through third grade, according to Napier. This request came from the parents of English language learners, Napier said.

According to Harris, an English language learner in kindergarten, first or second grade are still learning “the early standards within the education system” as well as a new language.

“Not only at that point are you dealing with standards based on grade levels, you’re also dealing with levels of English development and each level of English development has a different set of standards that go along with the content standards by grade level,” Harris said. “It can be confusing to students and very time consuming for teachers.”

If the school district does reinstate combination classes, however, it wouldn’t be at a school that only has one teacher per grade level, Harris said.

Smaller schools, like Mountain School in Gasquet and Margaret Keating School in Klamath, have combination classes that house two grades with only 18 students, Harris said.

“We don’t have any plans on reducing the staff at those sites,” he said. “Another issue that came up was not making combo classes out of K-1 because (the students’) needs are so different.”

Harris noted that it would be detrimental to the student to have a 5-year-old who has just started kindergarten in the same class a, who at 6, has a year of school under his belt.

When asked about how much enrollment had declined in the school district, Harris said it was difficult to say. In the last two years Harris has served as superintendent, the district experienced an increase in the number of students. One year there was a big jump in kindergartners, he said, and the following year saw an increase in fifth-graders.

But last year a number of students moved out of the area with some leaving California, Harris said. Some wound up at schools in the Sacramento area, he said.

“None of those shifts were numbers we could have predicted,” he said. “So next year what we’re looking at are the kids currently enrolled and we’re going to move them into their next year’s grade level.”

The district’s lottery process for parents wanting to send their youngsters to schools outside of their neighborhood has just ended, Harris said. He said he and Napier will come back to the school board with that information included in the district’s preliminary budget.

On Thursday, when discussing combination classes, board member Frank Magarino asked how principals go about selecting which students to place in them.

Smith River School Principal Diane Cochran-Wiese said she goes through the class list and works with the student’s new teacher and their previous one to determine if they would do well in a combination class.

In other matters, the school board agreed to establish a subcommittee with Magarino and his colleague Don McArthur to look into concerns raised regarding the district’s athletics programs. This decision follows a statement in February from Board President Jamie Forkner regarding coaches’ conduct and athletics facilities in need of repair.

Magarino and McArthur will work with Jim Brown, a former superintendent who helped recruit Del Norte’s existing superintendent. According to Harris, with two trustees on this subcommittee, it allows flexibility to visit a school site and speak with students, coaches and parents without having to have an agendized meeting.

Brown would be a facilitator who would help organize information and ask questions, Harris said.

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