How many elementary schools can East Lansing maintain and what should ELPS do about Red Cedar school?

There are 286 sixth graders in the crowded MacDonald Middle School. With an average fifth grade class size of 28.5 students in East Lansing Elementary Schools, the district can support 10 classrooms of fifth graders funneling (rising) into the Middle School.

Dividing these 10 classroom across schools with at least two classes in each grade means the district can maintain a maximum of five K-5 elementary schools.

Alternatives to this straightforward division of 2 classrooms per school that would potentially spread students across 6 schools include:
1. having only one class per grade in two elementary school or
2. split grade classes (where 4th and 5th graders, for example, are together in the same classroom).

However, my understanding is that ELPS’s principals and teachers believe these alternatives are less than ideal for student learning.

Opening a 6th elementary school with two classrooms per grade would be prohibitively expensive. It would require the following:

1. Increasing the MacDonald Middle School to accommodate 171 more students: 2 more classes of 28.5 in each of the 3 grades.
2. Across the district, student enrollment would have to increase from ~3700 to ~4400. If there is no change in resident enrollment, this could only be accomplished by increasing the number of school of choice students from 848 to ~1500. This clearly is not feasible based on demand from school of choice students and would decrease classroom resources.
3. Students, teachers, and parents bearing significant moving costs due to an additional reconfiguration following the recent closure of Red Cedar.

While much of the East Lansing community is upset about the poorly planned process by which Red Cedar was closed, including me, I believe reopening Red Cedar and closing one of the five current K-5 elementary schools is not in the best interests of East Lansing students.

With that said, I think most residents of East Lansing would like to see important educational programming in Red Cedar School. The recent proposals for educational programming at Red Cedar (STEAM program, several elementary school classes and a Pre-K program, or an entire school of pre-K classes operated by ELPS) were not adequately researched nor, in my opinion, financially viable. Frankly, I think if any of these proposals were implemented, the program would have operated at Red Cedar a year or two, taken significant district resources, and then been terminated.

To illustrate this point, consider the proposal to have ELPS operate a fee based Pre-K program such as Reggio Emilia, Montessori, or Waldorf. This has been suggested by several school board members and actively supported by numerous community members. The first step to determining the financial implications of ELPS operating a Pre-K Program in Red Cedar is to consider the costs. ELPS currently spends between $10,000 and $11,000 in operating expenditures per K-12 student. Because over 75% of ELPS’s operating expenditures involve labor, teacher costs for Pre-K and K-12 are similar, and Pre-K programs have smaller student/teacher ratios, I would expect operating expenditures per Pre-K student to be a minimum of $10,500 and more likely around $12,000. The private Montessori schools in the area charge slightly less than $6,500 annually. If the ELPS Pre-K program charged a similar, competitive fee, this means that each Pre-K student would be subsidized around $4,000 by ELPS’s operating fund. If ELPS operated a fee based Pre-K program at Red Cedar with 120 children, the subsidy to the enrolled students families would be almost half a million dollars. When thinking about the benefits of such a fee-based Pre-K program, it is unlikely that underserved populations would take advantage of such a program, and more likely that it would attract and subsidize relatively affluent children (from programs like Radmoor Montessori). To pay for this subsidization, ELPS would have to reduce classroom resources for K-12 children by ~6 teachers or ~12 parapros.

While I don’t believe a fee-based Pre-K program is the right thing to do for the ELPS, other options must be investigated when determining the optimal decision for Red Cedar School. One option worth considering is identifying another education provider, which would not compete with ELPS for students or resources, to rent the 45,000 square feet Red Cedar building. The two obvious educational providers that should be approached are Ingham Intermediate School District (ISD) and MSU. Ingham ISD runs the Heartwood School, which provides dedicated programing to special education students. Heartwood is currently space constrained and Ingham ISD is renting space in a Lansing School District elementary school. If Ingham ISD is interested in renting a sizable portion of Red Cedar and willing to pay a similar rate as they pay to Lansing, this could generate a significant amount of revenue. In this manner, Red Cedar could be used for important programming and the revenue from the rent could be used to pay teachers, parapros, counselors and/or specialists for ELPS students. It could also be used to implement other useful programming in Red Cedar. I have no knowledge of any potential interest by MSU in renting space in Red Cedar for programming or collaborative programming with ELPS, but they should clearly be approached.

Comment 1: I wanted to present the above enrollment calculations in a simple manner so I ignored several aspects of the environment (such as student attrition and class size variation across grades). Incorporating these aspects would not appreciably change the numbers presented. The same holds for the financial calculations above.

Comment 2: The inability to support more than five elementary schools is the result of not only overall district enrollment but also class sizes. If the average fifth grade class size was in the low 20’s instead of 28.5 students, operating six elementary schools may be possible. Unfortunately, these significantly smaller class sizes are currently not financially feasible.

Comment 3: I discuss the fee based Pre-K program and not the Early Childhood Special Education, Head Start or Great Start Program. These programs cannot operate on a scale that would warrant the use of a significant portion of Red Cedar and it may be advantageous to locate these programs in a K-5 elementary school.

Comment 4: If anyone has a plan to use Red Cedar for some other financially viable, educational programming, I would be happy to contribute to the financial analysis and advocate for it.

Mike Conlin

[The information in this post is based on my research and represent my views. They do not necessarily represent the views of MSU.]
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