Dave Smith has 21 sixth-graders in the class he teaches at Bloomington’s Arlington Heights Elementary School – not a bad number. But add the 16 fifth-graders who are also in Smith’s class, and you’re looking at a lot of kids for one teacher.
Smith’s 37-student class is not exactly an outlier. More than a dozen Monroe County Community School Corp. elementary teachers have 33 or more students in their classrooms. Class sizes in the district ballooned when the school board eliminated teaching positions as part of $5.8 million in spending cuts.
MCCSC officials warn that more teacher reductions, and possibly even bigger classes, are likely if voters don’t approve the school-funding referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The school board voted in February to set staffing levels at 22 students per teacher for kindergarten, 24 for grade 1, 25 for grades 2-3, and 30 for grades 4-6. But those numbers are just averages. Principals group students and assign teachers the best they can, but some classes inevitably will be bigger than average.
According to figures compiled by the superintendent’s office, here’ some of what you’ll find this year in Bloomington elementary schools:
— Arlington Heights, split classes (grades 5-6) with 37, 35 and 32 students
— Clear Creek, multi-age classes (grades 4-6) with 35, 33 and 32 students and a sixth-grade class with 35
— Grandview, two fourth-grade classes with 34 students each and sixth-grade classes with 37 and 34
— Unionville, a third-grade class with 32 students
— Highland Park, two first-grade classes with 28 students each
— Templeton, a split class (grades 5-6) with 34 students and a sixth-grade class with 34.
Smith, a 36-year veteran teacher with a get-it-done attitude, isn’t complaining. He points out that he really has only 36 students – one boy on his roster is being taught at home because of medical issues. He recalled, years ago, having even more students in a tiny upstairs room in the old Fairview Elementary School. “One whole side of the classroom was folding chairs and metal tables,” he said. “We were packed in there like sardines.”
And while the MCCSC no longer routinely provides aides to assist with large classes, Smith gets help from Indiana University students who are in the classroom twice a week for a field-experience class, a future student teacher who volunteers once a week and a high-school student who comes every other day. “I make use of all of it,” he said. “You learn, after so many years, that you just do.”
But not every teacher will claim Smith’s comfort level with managing big, diverse classes. And some parents are likely to wonder if their children are getting the attention they need when they share a teacher with 30-plus other students.
The issue extends to middle schools and also to high schools, where the average class size was set at 32 students. Donald A. Adams, a social-studies teacher at Bloomington High School North, writes in a Bloomington Herald-Times guest column (subscription required) about the difficulty of managing a class with 41 students in a room designed for 30 or fewer. Some North classes, he said, have as many as 50 students. He writes that “in the end more students per teacher inevitably means less time per student. That in turn means less support for those in danger of failing or dropping out.”
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, in his August 2010 “state of education” address, praised the A-Plus school accountability law that Indiana adopted in the 1980s under Gov. Bob Orr. He didn’t mention another Orr education program: Project Prime Time, under which the state provided funding to reduce class sizes in the early grades to a target of 18 students in kindergarten and first grade and 20 students in second and third grade.
Now Prime Time is history, and Bennett’s message is that “money isn’t the answer” and schools will just have to do more with less.