Coping with class size

Small classes come at a cost

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A Steamboat Springs School Board plan to revisit class-size policies is proving to be the catalyst for a full-scale evaluation of district staffing levels and funding priorities.

Analyzing discrepancies between two class-size policies -- the district's policy mandates no greater than an average of 20 students to a teacher while the administrative team's policy uses a 19-to-1 ratio for the elementary schools and an 18-to-1 ratio for the secondary schools -- likely will involve policy revision. That revision will require examining the larger issues of current staffing levels, the district's budget and funding priorities.

And at the heart of the issue is dwindling district revenue and the oft-asked question of what are appropriate class sizes for Steamboat's public schools.

It's a question Superintendent Donna Howell and her administrative team began working on last week. The answer likely will be more complex than a simple ratio.

"The community does value small class size, but nobody has identified specifically what that is," Howell said. "This is not a one-activity process. This is going to take time."

Howell said she envisions a discussion that involves the values of the community, the factors most important to education and what's affordable for the school district.

"It will be an interesting couple of weeks," she said.

The half-cent tax

Most would agree it's been an interesting decade for the school district when it comes to class size. Motivated in part by growing class sizes and the belief that smaller classes result in better student achievement, voters passed in 1993 a half-cent sales tax for education.

Twenty-two teachers later, the Education Fund Board has met its promise to reduce class sizes, board President Jim Gill said.

"We've contributed to smaller class sizes in the district," he said. "People forget where we would be without the Fund Board."

Those 22 teachers have helped the district drop its class sizes from an average of more than 25 students per class to an average of 20 students per class.

Still, debate has raged over the issue in the past couple of years. Most recently, the School Board accepted a two-teacher increase, one for each elementary, funded by the tax -- but not before saying allocating existing teachers among the schools should come before taking on the salary of more employees.

Strawberry Park Elementary Principal John DeVincentis said fifth-grade classes at his school would have been as large as 27 and 28 students without the extra teacher.

"Any school district without a half-cent sales tax has 27 (students in a class)," he said. "Why should we have 27 with a half-cent sales tax? We'll spend a lot of money on a computer or a building, but student contact time is the most important."

Dwindling revenue

Balancing the factors that most impact education against the costs associated with them will be an important part of the discussions taking place during the next couple of weeks.

The 22 teachers hired using the half-cent sales tax come with a price tag of more than $1 million, Finance Director Dale Mellor said. Last year, the district paid about $600,000 of that total, and the Fund Board paid $500,000.

"The district can't continue to fund the class sizes we're at," School Board President Paula Stephenson said at a Monday board meeting.

Mellor is projecting a $220,000 deficit for the 2004-05 school year. Because 80 percent of the district's budget is spent on personnel, cutting employees is often the only way to significantly cut costs.

Some School Board members and district administrators believe the Fund Board should pay most, if not all, of the cost of small class sizes. They say the Fund Board usually only pays the salary of an additional teacher for the first year, after which the district must pick up the tab.

"The Fund Board never said we'd fund 100 percent of whatever it takes to keep class sizes small," Gill countered.

If the Fund Board paid the majority of the cost, it would come at the expense of other projects and programs funded by the tax.

"It would be nice to say, 'Fund all small class sizes,' but then you lose funding for those other things," high school Principal Dave Schmid said. Those other things include computers, a middle school expansion project and content standards and curriculum staff, to name just a few.

Other educational factors

Like others in the district, Schmid said he doesn't know what appropriate staffing levels will look like. Research provides some answers -- depending on what side of the class-size fence a person is on.

"Current research says the most critical factor (in education) is a well-trained, highly qualified teacher in the classroom," Howell said.

General consensus is that between 17 and 20 students is ideal at the elementary level, with slightly smaller classes for kindergartners. But without a quality teacher, class size can be a moot point.

Some research places educational factors such as challenging learning experiences, principals who are instructional leaders, professional growth for staff and curriculum coherence ahead of class size.

"There's such a misperception on the importance of class size," Howell said.

Class load vs. class size

While most of the attention given to the class-size issue has focused on the elementary schools, the district's secondary schools face their own staffing dilemmas. With expansive course offerings and specialized teachers, the middle and high schools can't rely on a simple student-to-teacher ratio.

The middle school moved to a flexible schedule three years ago in an effort to reduce each teacher's class load, meaning the total number of students each teacher sees in class during a day. In the past, most teachers saw between 120 and 140 students a day. That amounts to a lot of time spent grading assignments rather than providing individualized attention, Principal Tim Bishop said.

Under the school's flexible schedule, class sizes increased from an average of 22 students to about 27, but class loads were cut in half, to the extent that the school's sixth- and seventh-grade teachers see about 55 students each day. Because of the school's abnormally large eighth-grade class, those teachers see about 95 students a day.

"We believe this is what's best for kids," Bishop said. "While there may be more kids sitting in front of a teacher at one time, teachers are seeing half the number of kids as before, and the contact time is greater."

After three years under the flexible schedule, middle school officials point to fewer discipline problems and better student achievement and say both are likely a result of the stronger relationships forged between students and teachers.

The high school also emphasizes the importance of class load and personalization.

"The number of kids you're responsible for is just as important as the number of kids in your class," Schmid said.

Some teachers at the high school still teach 120 students or more.

'We can't have everything'

DeVincentis, one of the district's most vocal advocates of smaller class sizes, said he's happy with the current sizes at his school, where the ratio peaks at 21-to-1 in the fifth grade and is as low as 16-to-1 in a couple of grades.

"This is the first year I'd say I'll never go back and ask for another teacher, given these class sizes," he said.

Other district principals, while acknowledging lower class sizes are always welcome, also believe current levels are reasonable. But those opinions might change if the district is forced to cut personnel for the next school year.

The upcoming administrative-team discussions will focus on district-wide staffing, not just the needs of individual schools.

"We've never done that before," DeVincentis said. "I agree with (Howell's) process. I'm counting on a good, positive discussion.

"The first thing is to see what everyone has. If we have to cut a teacher, where is the best place to cut?"

Howell envisions the process unfolding like this:

"We start with an honest conversation -- what we have now (in terms of staffing levels), if that's appropriate and how we make an adjustment given our present financial situation while also being sensitive to the needs of teachers," she said. "If we don't reach common ground, I'm not going to work for consensus for three months. I'm going to make a decision based on my professional experience, and I'll include the dissenting opinions."

Results of the discussion could evolve into a blueprint for district funding priorities -- what costs the School Board will cover from the general fund.

Regardless, choices will have to be made, Howell said.

"I think the biggest issue is how we balance dwindling resources with community values and our responsibility to have the most highly trained, qualified teachers in our classrooms," she said. "We're going to have a dilemma in front of us because we can't have everything."

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