Sizing down

The small-class debate

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— Class size is perhaps the central debate in the only contested race for the Steamboat Springs School Board on Nov. 1.

Michael Loomis, who has served on the School Board for two years, said he initially ran for the board because he wanted to reduce class sizes. He said he is comfortable with the current class sizes given the district's financial resources, and to reduce those class sizes further, he would use funds from the city's half-cent sales tax for education.

John DeVincentis, who retired in May as principal of Strawberry Park Elementary School, said he thinks the district should do more to reduce class sizes and that he would also look to the sales tax for education and consider making cuts in other areas -- including administrative salaries and positions -- to hire more teachers.

In Steamboat Springs elementary schools, class sizes range from 15 to 19 students in kindergarten and first grade. Second-grade classes have 16 to 22 students, and third- through fifth-grade classes have 20 to 23 students.

Strawberry Park Elementary also has a fourth- and fifth-grade combination class, and the Montessori strand class with first- through third-graders has 30 students.

A National Education Assoc--iation report in 1999 stated that cumulative research throughout two decades showed clear benefits for small class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The NEA defined small class sizes as 15 to 20 students in those grades. The NEA reported that the benefits of reducing class sizes in grades four through 12 are not as clear, particularly when weighed against the financial costs.

The NEA reported that the greatest benefit was seen when classes of substantially more than 20 students were reduced to fewer than 20 students.

The perception that class sizes have increased in Steamboat Springs in recent years is not true, Steamboat Springs School Board President Paula Steph--enson said. Several years ago, the School Board made it a policy to have a 19:1 student to teacher ratio, and before that, administrators used the ratio, as well.

Stephenson also said research shows a good teacher can handle classes with 30 to 35 students. One clear finding is that the quality of the teacher is the most important factor in a student's success in school, said Jane Toothaker, director of Northwest Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The NEA reported that class-size reduction is most effective when a teacher receives professional development and changes teaching methods to reflect the smaller class size. Unfortunately, the NEA reported, such changes are more difficult to achieve.

Mike Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary, thinks the debate about small class sizes is straightforward. Johnson said if an excellent teacher has a class with 18 students instead of 23, the smaller class will learn better.

By working with a student one-on-one, Johnson said, he can see immediately what a student is misunderstanding and address that need. "Obviously when you have a smaller group, you can get to these kids ... more times, and you can get to these kids for longer periods," he said.

Loomis said he think the city's half-cent sales tax for education could be used more effectively to hire teachers instead of aides.

About $100,000 of the funds from the tax for education, which are administered by the Education Fund Board, is set aside as a short-term reserve for more teachers. But in September, when the need for more teachers is realized, it's often decided that it's too late to hire teachers. The school district ends up hiring aides, who do not replace a certified teacher, Loomis said. He would rather the funds be used to hire teachers.

Money to pay for additional teachers could not come from what the school district already receives, he said. "Would I like to have smaller class sizes? Sure," Loomis said. "But the money for that would have to come from the Fund Board level."

The other side of the equation is having quality teachers, Loomis said. For the school district to attract and retain excellent teachers, teachers need to be paid enough, which is harder if there are more teachers to pay.

Loomis said the challenge is striking the right balance between class size and teacher quality. It becomes a debate of having three classes of 15 students each with lower-paid, less-experienced teachers or having two classes with 22 and 23 students with higher-paid, more-experienced teachers.

"The best is to have a small class and an excellent teacher," he said. "That's what we'd like to have."

DeVincentis said he thinks the school district has focused too much on meeting an average student-to-teacher ratio rather than applying a maximum level. That has resulted in "poor educational decisions" that don't benefit students.

He said combining fourth- and fifth-grade students in one class at Strawberry Park was a mistake -- a teacher has to divide time between teaching all the subjects to two grade levels, and the result is an ineffective way of meeting students' needs. And, having aides -- there are three at Strawberry Park, one each in the third, fourth and fifth grades -- also is an ineffective way to meet students' needs, he said.

He would have added an extra fourth-grade class and an extra fifth-grade class. The teacher who has the combined class could teach one, and the second extra teacher could be paid with the money going to three aides.

DeVincentis said adding more teachers to decrease class sizes is possible. Like Loomis, he would first look to the Education Fund Board to fund more teachers' salaries. Small class size was the key reason voters passed the education tax in the first place, he said, and a larger portion of the funds from the tax should go to that need.

Next, he would look at the amount of money spent on administration. He questions whether all the people working in administration are necessary and whether they should be paid as much as they are.

DeVincentis, principal at Straw--berry Park Elementary for 21 years, was the third-highest paid administrator in the district last year, earning an $83,000 salary.

Third, he would look at whether a larger portion of the school district's total budget should be spent on employee salaries and benefits. The district spends about 85 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits.

Finally, DeVincentis said he would look at other items the school district pays for, including consultants and legal fees, and ask whether those are necessary.

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