Sizing up classes

Lines blurred when it comes to determining student-teacher ratios

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There are 21 or 22 students in Jeremy Looper's kindergarten class. His mother, Cindy, pays attention.

"I think 22 is a lot for one person to handle," she said.

But with the help of parent volunteers and classroom aides, Looper said the class size is manageable and not something she's ready to complain about to school administrators.

The Moffat County School District has capped the number of students in a kindergarten classroom at 22. Eighteen is the ideal minimum.

But, even those lines are fuzzy and require that common sense be applied to each situation, Assistant Superintendent Joel Sheridan said.

A gray area

If a school has 48 kindergarten students, administrators must choose between dividing those students into two classes of 24 or hiring another teacher to create three classes of 16.

Instructional quality and money factor into the decision, Sheridan said. But another key component is space.

A classroom at Sunset Ele-mentary School may better accommodate larger classes than one at East Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Tiffany Trevenen said. And classrooms at Moffat County High School were built to accommodate 25 desks.

In grades seven through 12, administrators strive to maintain an average class size of 25 to 30 students.

"Over 30, you start getting into issues of safety, instructional effectiveness and sometimes space," Sheridan said.

The district has established parameters for class size, which could be changed by several unwritten rules, Sheridan said.

Remedial and special education classes are smaller because of the increased need for one-on-one attention, and upper-level classes can be larger because the students often are self-motivated, Sheridan said.

"If safety isn't a factor, the bottom line is instructional," he said.

For the high school level, there's not a lot of research that indicates a class of 15 students is better than a class of 24.

Better than average

Colorado has a pupil-teacher ratio of 18.4-to-1, which is the eighth highest in the country and includes all students as well as all instructional staff. Moffat County averages 15.8-to-1.

Each school's student-to-teacher ratio is listed on the School Accountability Report. But that often confuses parents whose students are in classes with a higher number of students, Sunset Elementary School Principal Zach Allen said.

Allen moved to Craig from the Front Range, where the average elementary class size was between 25 and 28 students.

"Class sizes here are much more manageable," he said. "I know in Moffat County we've got a good thing, and we try to keep numbers low."

The largest class in his school is 23 students in second grade. Sunset Elementary School averages 17 students in each first-grade class and 22 in fourth grade.

"We've just got a spike in second grade across the district," he said.

Smaller is better

The Colorado Education Association estimates that most regular classrooms have 25 to 30 children. The association advocates for a class size of 15 in kindergarten through third grade. That's the time educators teach students basic skills. It's also a time when a student's academic foundation is laid.

With an average of 23 students per class, Colorado has the fifth largest average elementary school class size in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

Moffat County's target is 18 to 22 students in kindergarten through second grade, 21 to 25 in third and fourth grades and 24 to 28 in fifth and sixth grades.

Administrators say they receive very little feedback from parents about class size.

Teachers say the same thing.

Tiffany Trevenen has 23 students in her morning kindergarten class and 19 in her afternoon class. She started the year with 22 in each and said administrators planned to add another section of kindergarten if one more student enrolls. But after four students transferred to morning classes or other districts, the school didn't add another section.

Difficult decisions

"It's very difficult to make those decisions (to add classes) because we do have such a migrant community," Trevenen said.

One year, Trevenen had seven students in one class and 15 in the other because of mid-year transfers.

Looper said that's one of the reasons she can't keep up with the number of students in her son's class.

"It keeps changing," she said.

Trevenen said a comfortable class size is 20.

"To me, class size is the difference between teaching kids and managing kids. The more you have, the more you have to manage," she said.

Having an aide in the classroom helps, but it doesn't change the management issue, she said.

The academic level of the students also makes a difference. A class of 23 "typical" students is easier to handle than a smaller class with more students who have special needs, Trevenen said.

But she said she understand the district's dilemma.

Building blocks

"It's hard to manage without consistency in the student population," she said.

Pressure on elementary teachers is somewhat reduced by "block" learning, Allen said. Students often are divided into smaller groups for interventions or literacy or math blocks.

The Colorado Education Association links class size to academic achievement, and The Education Commission of the States suggests educators reduce class size in the early grades.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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