Comparison of large, small class sizes underscores importance of personalized interactions

Denise Johnson could use a clone of herself as the teacher of 31 fifth-graders at Hillcrest School. Fortunately, she does get the help of two paraeducators, plus an English as a Second Language teacher and a Kansas University student who volunteers through the America Reads program. This is a panorama photograph taken in four shots with Johnson appearing in two shots at left and right. Johnson’s class is among the largest in the Lawrence school district.

Woodlawn School teacher Rachel Gilmore goes around her classroom to join her fourth-graders in a morning high-five greeting. Her class of 14 students is the smallest in the Lawrence school district.

Guidelines for class sizes in the Lawrence school district

The Lawrence school district has established standards for class size based on the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Here are the guidelines:

• In schools where 75 percent or more of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, classrooms are staffed with one teacher for every 23 students.

• In schools where 50 to 75 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, the ratio is one teacher for every 24 students.

• In schools where less than 50 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, there is one teacher for every 25 students.

The district also has caps for how large classes can be.

• In schools where 75 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, kindergarten through second grade classes can’t go over 25 students, and third- through fifth-grade classes can’t be larger than 30.

• In schools where 50 to 75 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, class size is capped at 26 for the lower grades and 31 for the upper ones.

• In schools with less than half of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, class size is limited to 27 for second grade and lower and 32 students for third grade and above.

Denise Johnson is as much ringmaster as teacher in her class of 31 fifth-graders at Hillcrest School in Lawrence.

She weaves through desks that are clumped in groups of five or six as she quizzes students about the characteristics of a fairy tale. She then disperses the group to different corners of the room to select a fairy tale of their own to read. There are 75 from which to choose.

Students sit cross-legged on the floor, lean against the wall or slump in their desks. Hopping from student to student is an English as a Second Language teacher, two paraeducators and a student volunteer through Kansas University’s America Reads program.

“Honestly, it’s a bit of a life lesson,” Johnson said of her large class. “We are definitely a crowded city.”

It’s a diverse city as well. Fourteen of Johnson’s students are part of the ESL program, six are in the gifted program and four have special needs. Abilities range from eighth-grade to second-grade reading level. And one student arrived at the start of the school year speaking little English.

“Luckily, I have a great group of kids that have been in big classes for the last few years and have learned to get along,” Johnson said.

If Johnson’s class is a crowded city, then Rachel Gilmore’s fourth-grade class at Woodlawn School is sprawling suburban neighborhood.

Gilmore starts the day by checking homework as her 14 students come through the door. She asks them to hold up fingers to rank how they are feeling. Most of them get to tell the class about their upcoming spring break plans.

Gilmore walks down the center of the room giving each student a good-morning high-five.

“You can spend more time with each one of them,” Gilmore said of having a small class.

Johnson has one of the largest elementary classes in the district. Gilmore has the smallest.

In the past few years, the Lawrence school district has spent a good deal of time discussing class sizes. In years of tough budget cuts, increasing class size is one of the less painful ways to save money.

Concerns about class size have also been a central theme for the volunteer group that had spent six months discussing ways to reduce six of the district’s smallest elementary schools down to three or four. On the one hand, bigger schools, particularly those that have three or more classes per grade, make class size more consistent. Yet some parents fear that if schools merge class sizes would escalate.

A small class

Four days before the start of the school year, Gilmore learned her class would drop from 31 students to 16. A student had enrolled that would push the class size over the school’s 31-student cap. Gilmore’s class started at 16, but several student changes during the school year had her teaching a room of 14 students last week.

“It was going to be an adjustment,” Gilmore said of the prospect of having to teach 31 kids.

She certainly couldn’t have had her entire class write their answers on the room’s white boards during a math lesson, like she did last week. And, there wouldn’t have been a corner of her room with a rocking chair, mat and books, a perfect place to spend time reading.

Johnson, on the other hand, had to ditch a couch she usually puts in a corner of her classroom where students can read.

“We don’t have space for anything extra,” she said.

But the biggest drawback to large class sizes, Johnson said, is the fewer chances to connect with the students and their parents.

“I have to talk and find out what is going on in their heads, if they got it and how their evening went. I feel like I have to do that every day,” Johnson said.

Johnson scrambles to find pockets of time when she can build relationships with her students, she’ll meet with individuals at lunch or after school. Last week, she took a group of students who had earned a special reward to get ice cream.

“It’s just critical that they know even though they are a large group that the teacher cares about them,” Johnson said.

Lawrence chief academic officer Kim Bodensteiner acknowledges that having fewer students allows teachers to develop deeper relationships with each child.

“We know that students do best when they have a relationship with the teacher and the teacher knows who they are and how they learn,” Bodensteiner said.

Research shows that the ideal class size is about 13 to 17 students for the lower elementary grades and in the upper teens and low 20s for the upper elementary grades.

The district standards are far from that ratio.

Depending on the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches, the ratio can range from 23 to 25 students per teacher. Bodensteiner stresses this is an average and students don’t come in neat increments of 25.

“Principals take the allocation and divide out the best they can,” Bodensteiner said.

The district also has a cap on how large classes can be. That cap ranges from 25 to 27 students in kindergarten through second grade and between 30 and 32 students for third through fifth grade.

For the Lawrence district, increasing the class size ratio from 24 to 25 students saves the district close to $500,000.

“Do you hire more teachers, or do you increase the salaries of the teachers you have or have more support staff?” Bodensteiner asked. “Our board over the last several years has had to make those kinds of decisions.”

To help alleviate large class sizes, the district keeps a contingency pool of teachers who are sent to schools with larger classes. They are known as hot-spot teachers.

“In tight budget times, you can get a little better bang for your buck with hot-spot teachers, who can address targeted problems,” Bodensteiner said.

One of those teachers went to Hillcrest to help the large fifth-grade class. Because there weren’t enough rooms to split the grade in three, the class was divided into two. The extra teacher allows the classes to be broken up into smaller groups for reading and math.

“That part has been wonderful,” Johnson said. “But it is still 31 kids that I’m ultimately responsible for.”