CHAMPAIGN — In hopes of relieving large first-grade class sizes next year, the Champaign school district will add what it's calling a pilot first-grade gifted program at Dr. Howard Elementary School.
The classroom will be what the school district calls a "bubble classroom," which means it will provide an extra classroom for one group of students until they leave the fifth grade.
The hope is that it will relieve first-grade classrooms all over the school district from class sizes of 25 or 26 students, said Trevor Nadrozny, Champaign's director of curriculum. The group of children that just finished kindergarten is the district's largest class ever, he said.
The district is also adding a bubble first-grade classroom at Barkstall Elementary, which the district is not worried about filling because many students are on the wait list to attend that school, Nadrozny said.
The district decided to try a first-grade gifted classroom after hearing parents say they'd be interested in such a program for first-graders. It's calling the classroom a pilot.
The district decided to do it at Dr. Howard because a second-through-fifth-grade gifted program exists there. The district also has gifted programs at its magnet schools: Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, Garden Hills Elementary School and Stratton Leadership and MicroSociety Magnet School.
Those schools are paid for through a federal grant, and Nadrozny said that doesn't allow the district to place students there based on their test scores.
Last year, the district put extra aides in large classrooms to deal with larger class sizes.
"It works, but if we can reduce class size, that's a much more effective intervention," Nadrozny said.
He said Superintendent Judy Wiegand discussed it with the school board in May. Because it's a pilot program, board approval wasn't necessary, said district spokeswoman Lynn Peisker.
Following that, the district sent letters to parents of kindergartners alerting them to the new classroom. More than 100 people applied, representing all elementary schools, Nadrozny said.
The district contacted one of the companies that helps it test for its regular gifted program, Nadrozny said, for an appropriate test.
The district wasn't able to test all interested students before the school year ended. It is still testing students this week and next week, and students who are now out of school will take the test at South Side Elementary, so they can sit in desks suited for them. Students who attend balanced-calendar schools at Barkstall and Kenwood will be in class until June 1, so they'll be tested at their own schools.
The test takes two days, with 45-minute sessions on each day.
"We want it be optimal testing," Nadrozny said.
The test includes a non-verbal section, which is good for English-language learners, he said. It also includes a section on math reasoning and English.
As test scores come in, Nadrozny said, the district will use them to decide which students will be in the new gifted classroom, which has 23 seats.
"Because it is so new, we'll look at the test scores and see if there's a natural break in the testing," he said. Students who will be placed in that class will be notified this summer.
Nadrozny said he has been in touch with parents who have questions about the program, especially what happens to the first-graders in the program when they reach second grade.
Because it's a bubble classroom, he said, Dr. Howard will have two gifted second-grade classrooms next year.
"In some ways, it gives more opportunities to get into the gifted program at second grade," Nadrozny said.
And, if first-graders move to Dr. Howard next year from another school, their younger siblings will have priority there during the kindergarten assignment process in the future, he said.
However, Nadrozny said he doesn't think Dr. Howard will be able to add another gifted first-grade classroom once next year's first-graders move on to second grade.
"We don't have any more space at Dr. Howard" after adding that classroom, Nadrozny said. "I really don't see us being able to add any more classrooms there."
Champaign schools are also expecting a large number of kindergartners next year, a class that could possibly be bigger than the one entering first grade in the fall.
It will add two bubble kindergarten classrooms at Bottenfield and South Side Elementary next year, as well as a bilingual kindergarten class at Robeson Elementary, the start of a bilingual program there.