Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Policy Of Inclusion

Our parent educator and I have had an ongoing, friendly and public, dispute over class size for the past couple years. She wants us down to 18 kids, while I feel that 24 is the right size for the 3-5 class. She claims that “best practices” dictate a smaller class, while I take the position that as a cooperative, in which we add an assistant teacher (in the form of a parent) to the classroom for every 3 kids, we’re a different kind of animal from a typical preschool class with 1-2 teachers and 18 children.

If there has been an ongoing sore spot at Woodland Park during my tenure, it’s been the 3-5 class enrollment policy. Legally, our Pre-3’s and 3-5’s classes are separate schools, each wholly owned by the parents who enroll their children for that school year. The two schools share a space, share a teacher, and work together under the auspices of a “joint operating agreement.” So in spite of the legal separation, in practice we operate very much like a single, 3-year preschool program.

As part of this relationship, the 3-5’s class has for decades given priority to the Pre-3’s families when I comes to enrollment. The problem was that we typically had only 10-12 spots available for a potential pool of 20+ Pre-3 families, which lead to a lottery in which some members of our community were “rejected” each year. When I was a freshman teacher, my board found this distasteful and rewrote our by-laws to say that all Pre-3 families who wanted a spot got one, regardless of class size.

I know, crazy, right? But what a beautiful thing as well. The discussion among the board, and then the larger parent population, centered on the notion that we were in the business of creating a strong, inclusive community for our children, and arbitrarily kicking people out of that community based on the luck of the draw didn’t contribute to that.

We understood that there was the potential – albeit unlikely – that this policy would lead to a day in which we enrolled 30+ kids, the prospects of which seemed daunting, but when it went to a vote, the policy passed unanimously. Imagine that. It took an incredible leap of faith by an entire community to make that decision.

Our first spring enrollment period under this policy lead to a roster of 28 families. Ulp! We comforted ourselves with the idea that there would be some attrition over the summer and sure enough, by the time we opened our doors in the fall, we were down to a very serviceable 22. The following year we enrolled 30 (not so unlikely as it turned out) then dropped to 23. The next year we were up to 31, but started the year with 24. (It was this experience that lead me to conclude that this was a perfect size for our class for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here.) Since then we’ve had classes of 22-23.

I know from talking to other co-op teachers and parents that all of the schools in our system incur a certain amount of roster shrinkage every summer, no matter what the enrollment policy, so some of what we’ve experienced is just the nature of the beast, but I have to assume that 2-4 families every year are scared off by the prospects of a huge class. Only two families over the past 8 years have cited this as a reason for withdrawal, but it’s likely that there have been some who haven’t elected to provide their full reason. Still, they’re choosing to leave the community, rather than being excluded by a lottery, and I have to believe that this is a healthier situation.

On the other end of things, however, we know that every family in our school, no matter how big our enrollment, has chosen to stay, eyes wide open. This tells me that even if we did one year wind up with 30 kids and had to implement our over-enrollment plan, it would be with a fully supportive, committed community of families who will do whatever it takes to make it work. If we had 30 children in class, we would also have 11 adults in the room working as my assistants. Yes, we would likely have to bust out of our little classroom and start using our gym as part of our free-play time, but I see opportunities there for incorporating more large motor activities into our mornings. There would be issues and challenges we can’t foresee right now, I’m sure, but I have every confidence we would put together an incredible year for our kids.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that a small part of me kind of wishes for this to happen. I would love to see how we make it work. It might very well turn out to be something we never want to do again, but there’s no way it would be a disaster, not with our community. We would put together an incredible year for our kids come hell or high water.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that first board, with its chair Laura B. and the geographer who has become my colleague Teacher Aaron. In many ways it is their visionary policy of inclusion that is the heart of the educational community we are today.


And because yesterday I promised photos of our volcano, here they are:

You'll notice that the green paint has been washed off our cotton ball "trees" over the years and that they've been dyed orange by the lava, but it's still a functioning volcano.

Bookmark and Share


Julie said...

I whole heartedly agree with the larger class size and community, Tom. Having been there since the beginning and watching how it works and what a beautiful community it creates, I really think she had missed the real fundamental benefits that the children are getting. More engaged parents in the classroom means more opportunities for trying out relationships with other adults that are not their parents...VERY Important. Play is the most important for 3-5s...We're not doing worksheets or trying to learn math facts. Play is loud and busy and energetic and messy and if you can figure out how to play with a whole bunch of people, kids and adults alike, you are going to be a much happier, well equipped bigger kid. We are only there for a couple of hours a day. And the community that results has been fantastic! I am grateful we don't act "exclusive". In fact, it was when that overarching philosophy of "community" got forgotten by some folks is when we had our problems.

Michelle said...

I know what you mean about the attrition (our special needs preschool that continues to enroll as children turn 3 being the exception). I had high hope for enough attrition in a certain program in our school district that we'd get in, but no dice unfortunately. That same program just changed their admittance for this upcoming year to NOT guarantee siblings a spot, which (as a parent of a child who didn't get in because of the sibs) I think is the wrong decision. How wonderful for you that you find a way to make this work and that you have such a strong community!

As for the lava -- I didn't realize this volcano was still "alive" as it were. VERY cool. I love that you're still using it.

and selfishly, I could use some ummm professional teacher advice on today's post :)

Deborah Stewart said...

Hi Tom,
Love the volcano:) As far as class size, here in Indy we have to go by the youngest age so an age of 3 is 10 to 1 teacher and fours is 12 to 1 teacher. I never had less than 24 students and one assistant enrolled in my classes at a time. I loved the large preschool class - anything smaller, and I would get bored:) I love the challenge of keeping my preschoolers organized, entertained, engaged, and challenged and this seemed actually easier with larger numbers than smaller. The children had more opportunities for playmates, socialization, creativity, and so forth. My class was always hopping. I recently subbed in a class with only 10 students - The children relied much more heavily on the teacher to keep them happy. I definitely enjoy a big class - time flies because we have so much more fun together.

dv.x.3 said...

I just asked to have my son added to the waitlist for your 3-5s class. I know, we have almost no chance of actually getting a spot before he hits kindergarten, but I figure the teacher who brings tears to my eyes writing about giving his students unlimited supplies of glue should probably be the guy teaching my kid, while I still have (somewhat of) a choice in the matter. Your students (and their parents) are very fortunate, and I'm glad that your board, way back when, had the foresight to know that spreading that kind of good fortune around is good for everyone in the community of learners that you're a part of. The more the merrier.

Teacher Tom said...

That's so exciting, sprouts! I would love to get to know him. We did wind up with openings for 2 new 3-5 kids last year, so you never know.

Unknown said...

I can't imagine that you wouldn't excel with a class of 30 just as you do with a class of 24.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm commenting on a very old post, but I wanted to add my thoughts. We were in the NSCC co-op system, and the attrition between pre-3s and 3-5s was pretty much all due to parents deciding on a drop-off preschool instead of co-op, as their child started exhibiting those typical three year old behaviors. And those of us who stuck with it had a lot of moments of doubt when imagining us with a whole room of these challenging people.

We've moved to a different city now and again most of our attrition over the summer is parents returning to work or going for a longer day dropoff preschool.

I think class size in co-op is not so much related to the adult/child ratio, but the size of the space and how crowded it feels. We didn't apply to Woodland park because of the surface of your outdoor space. Isn't it really crowded out there with 24 kids?

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . Yep, a lot of people had your initial response to the outdoor space. Our new playground ( has changed that!