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updated: 3/7/2017 7:05 PM

How District 204 candidates would solve class size problem

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  • Upper from left, Vasavi Chakka, Laurie Donahue,  Cathy Piehl,  and Michael Raczak, and lower from left, J. Randy Sidio, Renata Sliva and Susan Taylor-Demming  are candidates for  Indian Prairie Unit District 204 school board.

    Upper from left, Vasavi Chakka, Laurie Donahue, Cathy Piehl, and Michael Raczak, and lower from left, J. Randy Sidio, Renata Sliva and Susan Taylor-Demming are candidates for Indian Prairie Unit District 204 school board.

  • Laurie Donahue

    Laurie Donahue

  • J. Randy Sidio

    J. Randy Sidio

  • Cathy Piehl

    Cathy Piehl

  • Michael Raczak

    Michael Raczak

  • Susan Taylor- Demming

    Susan Taylor- Demming

  • Vasavi Chakka

    Vasavi Chakka

  • Renata Sliva

    Renata Sliva

 
 

In a school district with 28,500 students from four large towns, it's no surprise some parents have complaints about class sizes.

Candidates seeking spots on the Indian Prairie Unit District 204 school board also say crowded classes are a concern, but they offer different ideas to address the issue.

The field in the April 4 election features two incumbents and five challengers seeking four available 4-year terms.

Board members Cathy Piehl and Michael Raczak are running for re-election, but board members Maria Curry and Benny White are not seeking another term. Newcomers on the ballot are Vasavi Chakka, Laurie Donahue, J. Randy Sidio, Renata Sliva and Susan Taylor-Demming.

Candidates say they've noticed parents repeatedly address the board about class sizes, which also were a sticking point during the latest round of teacher contract negotiations in 2015.

The district's average class sizes -- about 26 students for elementary grades and 27 for middle and high school -- are above state averages, which are roughly 22 students in elementary grades and 21 in middle and high school.

Donahue said she's familiar with crowded classes because her children grew up as south Naperville developed, with one of her daughters' kindergarten classes being moved to Neuqua Valley High School because the elementary school was too crowded.

"That is concerning," said Donahue, a 58-year-old computer engineer from Naperville who works as senior director of global quality for Nokia. "It is something people look at when they choose where to send their students to school."

Still, she said she knows class sizes have risen because of the state's school funding pinch, and she's glad the district has chosen to continue its strong support for programs such as arts and music.

Sidio, a 42-year-old financial consultant and Waubonsie Valley High School graduate, said large classes can be overwhelming for both teachers and students. But the problem is more pronounced on the district's north side, the Aurora resident said, while schools on the south side have slightly smaller sections.

He said the district should conduct a demographic study to determine whether the population imbalance will be short- or long-term and then address it with modular classrooms for overcrowded schools or, if necessary, boundary changes.

Incumbents Piehl and Raczak, however, say the population imbalance and class sizes are two separate issues.

Piehl, a 58-year-old school social worker from Naperville, said lowering class sizes won't cause the positive effects most parents think, so the district should provide educational support instead.

"At some point, we're going to have to go out to the community for additional funds because we can't function at the rate we are. After 2020, we start to go into significant debt," Piehl said. "I think we need to start putting those supports in place that can, not decrease class size, but make things more flexible so that we can address student needs."

One such support, said Raczak, a 64-year-old retired educator who worked for years in the district as an administrator, is an instructional coach who could be hired to help the teachers at a specific school. The instructional coach method is worth investigating, the Naperville resident said, because research shows class sizes need to be significantly smaller than what's seen in District 204 -- roughly 18 students -- before it makes a marked difference in student performance.

Taylor-Demming of Naperville also said research she's read has found class sizes are not the main determining factor in student success -- teacher quality is. So for the immediate future, the 57-year-old consultant in public relations, marketing and workforce development said it's best to focus on hiring and developing outstanding teachers.

While Chakka says it would be ideal to have classes with between 20 and 24 students, she said she doesn't believe crowded classrooms are adversely affecting student achievement. Chakka, an IT professional leadership coach and career counselor from India who now lives in Naperville, said her own classes had as many as 50 or 60 students as she went through elementary and high school, and the district can't afford to lower class sizes now.

Sliva, a 58-year-old homemaker from the former Czechoslovakia who now lives in Naperville, said she's not so much concerned with class sizes as she is with the district's use of funding to adjust its curriculum to meet the Common Core standards, which she says it should not have adopted.

The top four vote-getters in the April 4 election will earn seats on the board to govern 33 schools serving parts of Naperville, Aurora, Bolingbrook and Plainfield.

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