When less is more

Posted: Sunday, April 03, 2005

In Jane Canaday's classroom of 10 kindergartners and 16 first-graders at Mendenhall River Community School, the turtle aquarium gurgles and kids sit in a clump on the floor at the start of class.

"I'm only going to call on kids who have their hands up and are not calling out," Canaday says.

With its stuffed animals and wooden blocks, it looks like any other classroom for young children. But to fit so many students in the room, Canaday had to remove a desktop science center, a computer, a drama play area, and some pets.

"I had to make this meeting area a lot bigger just to accommodate another row of kids," she said.

When students, parents and school officials lobby the Legislature this year for more money for education, they often talk about large class sizes.

If Juneau had an extra million dollars, it could hire enough teachers to lower class sizes in the early grades to 20 on average, 25 in grades three to five, and 30 in the middle schools and high school.

The schools now average 25 students in the elementary grades, 31.5 in the middle schools and 31.8 at the high school.

Lowering class sizes is the most popular decision a school district can make. Every year the district's budget advisory group of parents and educators asks for it.

But even education researchers who support small classes caution that they merely create opportunities for better teaching; they don't guarantee it.

In a study of 15 low-performing, high-poverty schools in Austin, Texas, only two did better with smaller class sizes. They were the schools that added new curricula and teaching methods, got parents involved, and offered health services, a study said.

Districts also have to weigh the costs of adding teachers and classrooms with other ways the money could be spent. For example, would tutors for struggling students be a better use of extra money?

The Juneau district compiled a list of basic services it can't afford to provide. The list totals $3.8 million and includes new math textbooks, computer upgrades, additional special-education teachers and aides, and more money for summer school.

Choosing between hiring classroom teachers and providing extra help for some students is a constant balance, Superintendent Peggy Cowan said. A few years ago at the grade schools, the district went from half-time to full-time specialists for students who struggle with English.

And the district offers high school students at risk of dropping out two programs with smaller class sizes than the JDHS average.

Research also won't tell you what the best class size is, and whether it's worth reducing class sizes slightly if that's all that can be afforded. One study suggested that classes had to be as small as 15 students to be effective.

"Parents and teachers really, really like small classes, certainly for the primary grades," said Joan McRobbie, a senior policy associate at WestEd, a regional nonprofit that studies education. "The districts are always asking for more (money) and the legislators are always asking, what are you doing with what you have?"

In small classes students get more attention from teachers, and teachers spend less time managing unruly students, proponents say.

Teachers in small classes also may be able to engage students with better teaching methods, such as group discussions, Superintendent Cowan said. Some students drop out of high school not because they can't do the work, but because they feel no connection with the school, she said.

Employers generally don't expect 30 to 35 adults to spend all day in a space as small as a classroom, but we ask it of children, teachers said. When only 21 of Canaday's 26 students showed up recently, the class was noticeably quieter, she said.

"It felt so wonderful. ... The kids just seemed a lot more relaxed and less stressed," she said.

Mendenhall River Principal Patty Newman has taught classes in California with 32 students and classes with 20.

"It just was much more manageable," she said of the latter. "You could get to every student."

Mendenhall River parent Christine Bryson, who has two kindergartners and a second-grader with class sizes in the mid-20s, said it's scary that a quarter of the school's third- and fourth-graders don't meet standards in the core subjects of reading and math.

"That's pretty concerning," she said. "And if they're not meeting 'core' here, they're not going to pass those so-called high school exit exams."

To Bryson and Canaday, small class sizes in the early grades put students on the right track. It's hard to catch up, they said.

"It's really just crucial what you do for them in the first three years of school," Bryson said.

The most comprehensive and scientific study of class sizes, in the late 1980s in Tennessee, showed that students, especially from minorities, do better in small classes. The benefits lingered for years, even if the students attended mostly large classes later in their school career, a follow-up study said.

The experiment left no doubt that small class sizes have an advantage over large class sizes in reading and math in the early grades, researchers said.

But Caroline Hoxby, a economics professor at Harvard University, said the study's scientific advantages were offset by disadvantages: Schools knew that they were part of an experiment and that positive findings could lead to something they wanted - permanent small classes.

Hoxby, who compared student achievement and class size at 649 elementary schools that weren't in an experiment, said reductions in class size have no effect on student achievement.

Working against that is anecdotal evidence and observation. No one who watches a kindergarten or first-grade class can doubt that students need individual attention.

On a recent day when Canaday asked her students to write in their journals, she went from table to table continuously, answering questions and prodding students to get to work. Only 22 of her 26 students were there that day, but she was busy in the hubbub.

In 10 minutes' time:

She bent over one little boy and asked when he'd be ready to write. She crouched next to another boy and talked to him. She tapped a boy on the head and told him to focus.

Canaday asked a girl about her wrist, which was bandaged. She talked to a daydreaming boy, then asked a girl to read what she had written.

She suggested a girl write about leprechauns.

"They love to get letters," Canaday said.

She sat with a boy who was struggling to write a phrase. She patiently drew him out sound by sound. She took him to the whiteboard to look at the printed word "my" because it had the sound of the letter "m" in it.

"It's one of your spelling words," Canaday told the boy. "I want you to spell it correctly."

Sometimes students had their hands up, but they gave up when Canaday couldn't come over. Often, they raised their hands again when she swung around to their table.

Canaday said she has less time this year to teach her kindergartners how to read.

The Juneau School District has used the same formula for staffing schools for the past two years, and it's similar to the year before that. But this school year produced noticeably more complaints from parents and teachers.

Science teachers at Juneau-Douglas High School said large science labs are unsafe and filed a union grievance with the district over the issue.

"Studies show the risks increase significantly if there are more than 24 students," department chairman Erik Lundquist said. A little more than half the labs this semester have more students than that.

The Juneau School Board, in turning down the grievance, agreed that safety is a priority. But the board noted that the district had added three science sections this year, and members said there are no state or federal requirements for the size of science labs.

To JDHS social studies teacher Kurt Dzinich, it appears that the district staffs the school to allow for large classes at the start of the year, knowing that some students will drop out and the classes will become more manageable.

His three world history classes started in August with 34 or 35 students and now have 26, 28 and 30 students.

"I guess they must be banking on that - that kids are disappearing," he said. "The question is how much we are contributing to that by stacking the classes high."

Dzinich said he knew of two students who left his classes in the first week because they were crowded.

The Legislature has talked about increasing school funding, but to a level that would preclude hiring more teachers. Are there other ways to relieve class sizes?

Juneau's elementary school principals have some discretion in how to use their staff to cover the regular classrooms and other tasks such as the library, counseling, physical education and music.

For instance, Riverbend Elementary used as a regular classroom teacher a position intended to help students meet standards in reading and math because smaller class sizes were a way to achieve that.

Sometimes principals can alleviate enrollment bulges at one grade level by blending those students into mixed-grade classrooms.

That won't help at Mendenhall River, which already has three classrooms that mix kindergartners and first-graders. All of the grade levels have enrollments in the mid-20s. There's no place to put a bulge in kindergartners, Principal Newman said.

Classroom aides can be helpful, and cost a lot less than teachers. But aides don't reduce the noise and stress of a large class, teachers said.

"What we do now is critical to how successful they are later," said Bryson, the Mendenhall River parent of young children.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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