For Concord’s class sizes, looking at the numbers might not be enough

  • A crowd listens while the Concord school board’s policy committee discusses the district’s guidelines on class sizes Wednesday. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/7/2019 7:34:06 PM

Emma and Olivia O’Connor’s feet barely touched the floor as they started to speak.

Reading carefully from a typed sheet of paper, Emma, a fifth-grader, explained to the Concord school board’s policy committee how being in a class of 26 students impacts her; there’s no space to move desks around or a rug for a morning meeting. Things her sister, a third-grader, gets to enjoy in a class of 17.

“Right now, we are barely managing to fit in all of our desks,” she said.

The sisters, both students at Concord’s Abbot-Downing School, weren’t the only children to speak at the committee’s meeting Wednesday, but it was adults who mostly led the charge in pleading with the committee to consider ways to shrink the district’s class sizes.

Many questioned whether those guidelines are still relevant in a district that speaks many languages and caters to students with various physical and learning abilities.

The current policy is more than 30 years old and gives a range of acceptable class populations depending on the grade. Kindergarten classes can be anywhere from 14 to 20 students, with 17 being the objective; 18 to 24 students in grades one through three, with 21 being the objective; and 22 to 28 students in grades four through six, with 25 being the objective.

Even though most classes are within or below the district’s target enrollments, there are a few big classes in the fourth- and fifth-grade levels that push the guidelines mid range of 25 and outer limits of 28.

Nichole Fox has three children at Christa McAuliffe School who she said are in larger classes, including fifth-grader Cate Fox in a class of 26. Her kids are quiet, she said, and don’t seek attention.

“I’m constantly worried that no one is seeing them,” she said. “When you divide a person into 26 pieces, there isn’t much left.”

And Déodonné BhatHarai asked whether her fourth-grade son at Mill Brook School, who uses a wheelchair, would be able to navigate in a crowded space.

“Concord has a legacy of inclusion,” she said. “We need to think about what other factors beyond the number of students we might need to be looking at.”

Mike Pelletier has been teaching in Concord for 14 years; his class of 26 at Christa McAuliffe is the biggest he said he’s ever had to teach.

“It’s challenging and frustrating to try and meet the need of all of them,” he said. “... For many of my students, I’m the most stable adult in their lives. My ability to be that person for them is diminished because of the class size.”

There’s data that supports the idea that smaller class sizes produce results for all types of learners, but especially in elementary school grades. Superintendent Terri Forsten, quoting the Center for Public Education, said small sizes boost academic achievement for K through third-graders; in particular, minority and low-income students thrive, and class sizes of no more than 18 tend to produce the best results.

But class size alone does little to help students if a school doesn’t have enough classrooms or skillful teachers, or professional development and a rigorous curriculum, she said.

Forsten also pointed to Project Star, a well-known study on the effects of class sizes. When it comes down to it, Tennessee recommends a range of 25 to 35 students, and has an average range of 20 to 30 students, depending on the grade level.

From the committee’s perspective, the issue is far from over.

“From looking at the input I’ve received ... the policy doesn’t reflect all the work that goes into developing class sizes,” board president Jennifer Patterson said. “... We are very mindful of paying attention to those classes on the larger side.”

Committee member Chuck Crush compared the situation to looking just at the nurse-patient ratio at a healthcare facility.

“Just looking at the ratio ... doesn’t really paint the whole picture,” he said.

But they also can’t ignore the cost changing classes can bring, said board member Thomas Croteau, calling it “the elephant in the room.”

The issue is certainly on the minds of the district’s administrators – a new teacher typically costs about $80,000, including salary and benefits, Forsten has said, and one of the first budget work sessions scheduled for February tackles salary questions.

Forsten said she could see some changes going forward, saying the feedback she’s received has mostly focused on staying away from the upper elementary schools’ upper limits. That might mean taking a hard look at what class space is available, she said.

But there was also a sense that, to really be equitable, more resources might have to be spent.

“I’ve gotten several emails about this class sizes issue being a budget and taxes issue,” said board member Barbara Higgins, who taught special education in Concord for several years.

“... But when it comes to this discussion, we can either spend money on small classes, or we can spend the money on special education, but the money will be spent,” she continued. “That’s the way it is sometimes.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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