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GIPS adds additional teachers, support to address class sizes

As is always the case at the start of a new school year, Grand Island Public Schools has addressed class sizes across the district and brought in additional support to meet the needs of each student.

“We have targets for student-teacher ratios across all classes in the district,” said GIPS superintendent Dr. Tawana Grover. “Once we hit those ratios we start monitoring and investigating needs and solutions.”

The targets, which are different based on grade level, are one way the process begins. Another is by principals expressing concern due to other factors.

“We trust our data but we also trust our people,” Grover said. “When it comes to personalizing the education for every student, we design decisions based on data and we empower our instructional leaders to help us find solutions.”

The process actually is started well before specific needs are known. In the early part of the calendar year, when the district is putting together staffing needs, the Board of Education typically passes a staffing plan built to address known needs, as well as the flexibility to handle future needs as they arise.

“This allows us to be prepared financially to act when our students need us to,” said GIPS Chief Financial Officer Virgil Harden. “We have had this in place for many years, but certainly have become more sophisticated with our use of data in recent years and have thus been able to act quickly.”

This year, GIPS is already adding four classroom teacher positions in elementary schools to address critical needs. These will start with long-term substitutes until a permanent full-time teacher can be hired for each classroom, action that typically takes place at the end of the semester when college students graduate.

In addition to these teachers, GIPS is adding paraprofessionals in a few schools to help address specific class size needs.

Numbers do not tell the entire story, when it comes to class size, district leaders were quick to point out.

“The targets are a only a start,” said GIPS Executive Director of Human Resources Wayne Stelk. “We make the decisions based on meeting individual needs. We factor in the makeup of the students in a class, the needs of each student, how many are English Learners, special education needs of the classroom, school performance, whether a campus is a Title I school and other factors that help prioritize the needs. We aim to get the best teacher for each student in every class.”

District leaders are also aware these numbers are always changing.

“We know schools will add more students after Labor Day,” Stelk said. “Our data trends show us what to expect. So that factors in as well when determining where we add support.”

Secondary schools are not immune to the needs either. At Grand Island Senior High, changes have already taken place to balance class sizes, including changing the structure of certain schedules at Career Pathways Institute to reduce class size back at Senior High.

“We continue to utilize data to provide the best experience for our students,” Grover said. “Our principals, our teachers, our support staff … everyone is helping us address the needs of each individual child. Our entire staff is being flexible and focused on our strategic plan.”

GISH is currently looking to hire a teacher to lead online learning opportunities for students during open periods.

“The goal is to be able to provide personalized learning for every Islander,” said GIPS Chief Transformation Officer Dr. Josh McDowell. “We are looking to change the perception of open periods and study halls to an opportunity to take an online class in area of interest we may not currently offer or to help adjust a student’s schedule.”

Grover said these types of experiences will grow for GIPS students in the coming years.

“However, we aren’t waiting a couple of years for current students,” Grover said. “We are acting now to respond to the needs of students now.”

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