Wednesday, October 8, 2008

District pays big bucks to educate kids

Costs per student nearly twice the state average

Express Staff Writer

Express graphic by Erik Elison
A comparison of school district expenditures per student, student-to-teacher ratios, Idaho Standard Achievement Test results and percentage of white students. Spending is based on Average Daily Attendance, or ADA. Data is from the 2005-2006 school year.

The Blaine County School District spends nearly twice as much as the state average to educate its students.

Higher salaries, a lower student-to-teacher ratio, more specialists, extra costs associated with teaching students deficient in the English language, plus the higher costs of doing much of anything in the Wood River Valley—it all adds up.

Last year, the district spent $13,777 per student, compared to a state average of just over $7,000.

A major reason for the higher costs is that the district has one of the lowest student-to-teacher ratios in the state. According to the State Department of Education, the ratio in Blaine County is 13 students per teacher, compared to a state average of 17 students per teacher.

More teachers per student should equate to better education. But are the district's patrons getting their money's worth?

One way to measure a school district's success is the Idaho Standard Achievement Test. ISAT scores for Blaine County students are above the state average, but only marginally higher than in the Twin Falls School District, where the student-to-teacher ratio is 17 students per teacher. But the scores are lower than the Boise School District, where the ratio is 16 students per teacher.

But ISAT scores can be deceptive and don't take into account the large numbers of Hispanic students who have migrated into Blaine County and other parts of southern Idaho in recent years.

Blaine County School District officials say they have a higher than average number of non-white students in Idaho, and ISAT test results have shown that non-white students drag down ISAT proficiency averages.

But when ISAT scores for only white students are calculated, the Blaine County School District has one of the highest reading and math proficiency averages in Idaho.

District administrators are quick to point out that Hispanic students aren't less capable of learning. But many of them arrive in Blaine County speaking little or no English, and for the most part, Hispanics just haven't had the educational opportunities available to their white counterparts.

More money available

With some of the highest property values in Idaho, Blaine County has more money to spend on its students than most of the state's 114 school districts.

Expenditures for Blaine County's more than 3,300 students are projected at $43.4 million for the 2009-2009 school year,. Last year the district spent $41.2 million on students. About two-thirds of the money comes from property taxes, which makes it possible for the district to afford more teachers.

Teacher salaries are typically higher, as are salaries for most all occupations in the Wood River Valley. Annual pay for the school district's teachers range from just over $34,000 to just over $70,000. Salaries are lower in the Boise School District: Annual pay there ranges from $27,500 to $60,000.

Blaine County has a certified teaching staff of 263 for students at Wood River High School, Carey School, Wood River Middle School, Silver Creek Alternative School and four elementary schools in Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.

Fewer students per teacher

The Idaho Department of Education's calculation of 13 students per teacher in Blaine County takes into account all the specialists who contributed to a child's education. Counselors, social workers, librarians and art, music, technical and physical education teachers are added into the calculation.

Another way look at the ratio is by students per class. Blaine County averages classrooms of just under 20 students, while the state average is more than 23.

"Our community, since I've been here, has always said we don't want our classes larger than 20," said Jim Lewis, school district superintendent. "We're not afraid of the low class numbers—we're proud of them."

The student-to-teacher ratio is further kept low, he said, by the "whole child" concept practiced in the Blaine County School District. Every school, with the exception of the Alternative School, has its own music, art, physical education and technical teacher in addition to a social worker.

Most school districts share specialist teachers among their schools, or have, for example, physical education instructors who double at teaching various scholastic subjects.

More teachers drive the costs up per student, but Mike Chatterton, the district's business manager, said that the school district's patrons expect more for their children.

"A lot of it is how educated the public is in the school district," Chatterton said. "A higher educated population will demand more from the school district."

English as a second language

The number of English-as-a-second-language students, most of whom are Hispanic, continues to rise in the Blaine County School District as more workers migrate to the Wood River Valley to take advantage of jobs that pay higher wages than elsewhere in Idaho.

The non-white student population was 25 percent in the 2005-2006 school year. Today it stands at about 30 percent.

"That means we have to have resources to educate these kids," said Lonnie Barber, the district's assistant superintendent. "But the good news is that we're addressing it."

The school district has a thriving Dual Immersion program to teach Spanish-speaking students English, and English-speaking students Spanish. The district also offers English as a Second Language classes to help Hispanic students become proficient in the language.

Lewis said the school district takes pride in helping Spanish-speaking students learn English, and thus become better students, where "some districts are ignoring it."

Barber has carefully analyzed ISAT scores to determine if the school district is successful in its teaching practices. Because of the emphasis on teaching English, Barber points out that ISAT scores for Hispanic students tend to increase the longer the students are in the district.

Nonetheless, non-English-speaking students bring down the ISAT averages, not just in Blaine County but in other school districts in southern Idaho.

While the Blaine County School District is marginally above the state average in ISAT scores for all students, Barber's calculations show that the district has the highest ISAT scores for white students among the 30 largest school districts in Idaho.

"You don't want to spend twice as much and be in the middle with your scores," he said. "And we're not."

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