The Renton School District hired a teacher two days before school began at Tiffany Park Elementary School to create a second fourth grade class. By Friday, Sept. 6, they eliminated her classroom, and determined they would relocate her to another position in the district.
That same Friday the parents were notified. They then began a “bring back Ms. Oke” campaign. One public Facebook post about the incident shared a hashtag on social media in an effort to bring back the teacher, Lauren Oke; #morethannumbersTP.
Parents and teachers spoke at the Wednesday, Sept. 11 Renton School District Board meeting on what they say is overcrowding and unnecessary removal of a needed fourth grade classroom.
Those speaking out claim the reorganizing was due to the three, fifth-grade classes being under district enrollment projections, each at around 26 students. In the shuffle to remove a fifth grade class, the newest teacher, Oke, was removed.
The 29 students in her classroom were moved to a fifth grade teacher, creating a fourth/fifth split classroom. The rest of the fifth graders were divided into the other two fifth grade classes. Tiffany Park Elementary’s remaining fourth grade teacher Jane Lambert said this has put the four remaining classrooms— one fourth, one fifth/fourth split and two fifth grade classrooms— over capacity.
Oke is still being paid her $54,000 starting salary, but she’s being moved to another position in the district, possibly as a substitute, according to staff at Tiffany Park. The Renton Reporter was unable to reach Oke, who is on vacation until Sept. 21.
Parents and teachers claimed at the public hearing that the district won’t save money from this as they are paying Oke more in these new positions than they would a regular substitute.
“Meanwhile we’re bursting at the seams,” Lambert said. “The district is telling us this is a cost saving benefit and we can’t possibly have lower class sizes. Why not?”
Sometimes staff has been moved around in the first few days of school in Renton. District spokesperson Randy Matheson stated in an email spring enrollment projections help the district determine the staffing budget for the next year. He stated while the district attempts to get closer projections throughout the summer, sometimes staff makes final decisions after the start of the school year to accurately confirm attendance.
“At Tiffany Park Elementary School, we held off on the decision to reduce staff until a week into the new school year in hopes of more students attending, which would bring the school closer to their projected enrollment,” Matheson stated. “Despite this additional time, the school remained under their projection.”
Parents claim there is inconsistency in the data they’re getting from district staff on why the teacher was removed. Parents at the public hearing said they received contradicting numbers on student attendance at meetings with the district.
One parent, Meaghan Larson, said her child counted 33 students in his now fourth/fifth grade classroom. He is an individualized education plan (IEP) fifth grader that also receives instruction in a separate class for part of the day, where he receives assistance with reading and writing.
For years now, her son has been reading with one of the fifth grade teachers, and has been looking forward to entering fifth grade to have him as his instructor. But with the changeup, her son was moved from his class to the fourth/fifth split class. That Friday, her son was told to bring his desk supplies home with him for his new classroom on Monday. Larson said her son walked out of school, crying over being moved from his favorite teacher, carrying a backpack overflowing with his supplies.
Larson claims the district told the principal to wait until that Friday before the classes changed to inform students and parents. She said if there’d been a few more days to explain to her son what was happening, it would have been easier.
“We informed the principal that a reduction was necessary, and he and his team moved as quickly as possible to inform families and rearrange classrooms in order to minimize the impacts of the changes,” Matheson stated.
She said she hopes her son can move back to his favorite fifth grade teacher’s classroom, and wants the district to explain the enrollment count to parents. At the least, she said, she wants the district to do this process differently in the future.
In the district’s comment on the matter, Matheson stated this is a challenging situation for everyone.
“As always, our aim is to make decisions that best support our students, and we are hesitant to reduce or add staff knowing changes to classrooms, even as early as the first few days of school, can be a difficult experience for students, families and staff,” Matheson stated. “District staff continue to support the school administration to ensure our students have a successful year of learning.”
Those who spoke at the public hearing said they wanted to have a follow-up meeting at or before Sept. 25 with parents, teacher union members and district representatives. On Sept. 17 Larson said she hadn’t yet heard of a scheduled meeting.