By Abraham Bunting
Class sizes have risen in recent years at NS despite relatively small changes in student enrollment. This could be seen as a problem, but the reasons administrators give for the increase in the class sizes indicate that such increases were inevitable.
Small classes, usually defined as twenty-five or less students, are nearly always preferable to large classes, having thirty or more students.
Kate Carney, English teacher at NS, has been teaching at the school for nearly 24 years. Carney has found that class sizes have risen and that large classes are harder to teach.
“It’s hard, especially in things like writing, because the more students you have to teach, the harder it is to give timely feedback for a lot of writing assignments,” Carney said. “I have to do a lot more classroom management.”
Although Carney perceived a general increase in class size over the years she has spent teaching, she remembers the biggest increases in class sizes in recent years. One reason she gives for the size increases is NS’s adoption of the block schedule.
Principal Nan Ault also saw the adoption of a block schedule as a big reason for the increase in class size.
“Our teachers are allowed two prep periods, that means that technically, there is less teaching than in a traditional schedule, ” Ault said. “The way we structure the day…we elected to have a few more kids in every single class, so that then we could provide teachers more time every day to prep.”
In the traditional schedule, teachers had one prep period in a seven period day. With the new block schedule, the number of classes per day was dropped to four. If most teachers have one prep period per day, during any given period of a day, nearly a quarter of all teachers are not teaching.
If the number of teachers was 32, then only 24 or 25 classes could be offered at a time to facilitate all the prep periods. On a traditional seven period day, with one prep period per teacher, the same 32 teachers could teach 27 or 28 classes per period. This translates to more students per class in a block schedule than in a traditional schedule.
Although the block schedule does increase class size, it was chosen by NS for a very specific reason.
“We chose to do [the block schedule] because we think it’s best for our elective programs,” said Ault. “ If you want to do that, then you have to keep your enrollment up; which means your enrollment in every class has to be closer to thirty in the core classes. That’s what we elected to do.”
Ben Cox, counselor at NS, agrees that the adoption of the block schedule was necessary for the elective programs. However, he disagrees with the logic behind the reasoning that the block schedule increased core class sizes.
“Core class sizes are not impacted by the block schedule,” said Cox. “Teachers teach six or seven classes regardless of whether we are on an eight period schedule or a seven period schedule. The same number of sections of block classes will be offered.”
According to Cox, the majority of class size increases that would result in a block schedule would be electives. The same number of students would enroll in the core classes in a traditional schedule than would enroll in a block schedule.
Nobody is going to fill an empty period with English 9, so the number of students that take English 9 would remain the same. If a teacher teaches six or seven classes regardless of the schedule, the number of kids in the English 9 classrooms, or any other core class, would not go up.
The block schedule does increase class sizes in elective classes. However, according to Cox, this is a good thing.
“That extra class that students have to take will end up being an elective class,” said Cox. “If we increase the size of the elective classes, that it actually very beneficial…[because] the money for CTE classes is tied to enrollment in those classes.”
Money for elective classes comes from a different place than money for core classes. Increased class sizes for CTE classes can increase the funding and quality of those classes, so increasing their class sizes can be a good thing.
The block schedule is a part of the reason for the increases to class sizes, at least elective class sizes, but it is not the only reason for the increases. The second big factor in class size increases, according to assistant superintendent Randy Shelley, is money.
Because funding for school districts is allocated on a per-pupil basis, it follows that if student enrollment rises, funding is increased, and a school district can afford more teachers. The NS school district’s enrollment has been relatively consistent for about ten years, and a reduction of teaching positions in that same time can seem alarming. However, as Shelley explained, once your perspective is broadened, the reduction of teachers makes sense.
“Over the last twenty to thirty years, we have a pretty steady decline in student enrollment, and with that decline in student enrollment…we have maintained the same number of teachers,” said Shelley. “We have not fired or terminated or riffed teachers.”
It is true that district enrollment has dropped, though not as dramatically as Shelley suggests.
In October of 1989, district enrollment was at 2271 students. That number rose until 1997, when enrollment was at 2558 kids. At that point, the enrollment steadily declined until 2004, when enrollment was at 2246 students. Since then, enrollment has remained relatively consistent, with slight increases, and now, enrollment in the district is at 2377 students.
According to Shelley, as the years passed and enrollment dropped, and teachers got older, the number of students per teacher fell and fell. At the same time, the state cut funding to school districts. This made the number of teachers impossible to maintain. The district has only recently moved to fix this problem.
“We came to the point where we could no longer feasibly keep the number of teachers on staff,” said Shelley. “We got to the point where as teachers retired, we just didn’t replace them, to kind of catch up with the decline in enrollment.”
Although Carney admits that enrollment in the district has dropped, she is somewhat skeptical of enrollment decline as a major factor in larger class sizes.
“I’m a little leery of that [reasoning]…I don’t really see that we’ve dropped that much,” said Carney. “I think that we could do better, especially in the core subjects…I think we should prioritize [this] more than we have.”
Class sizes are only one problem among many. Like anything, it could be better. However, increased class sizes are not a critical problem right now, at least according to Shelley.
Right now, Shelley estimates the student to teacher ratio at the high school to be about 24:1, which he is comfortable with.
“I think we’re in a pretty good position,” said Shelley.
Cox, on the other hand, thinks that there is plenty of room for improvement at NS and finds the student to teacher ratio that Shelley uses inadequate to measure how NS is doing with class sizes.
“It doesn’t give the whole picture,” said Cox. “If you only have 10 kids in a business class, then you get a skewed ratio.”