Washington Elementary School in southeast D.C. was back in session last week. Yes, it’s August, and the sun was out and the weather was balmy and delightful. But two days into the school year, it was not clear how, or if, the children would adjust to the idea of being in a classroom where class size is expected to range from 20-to-45 students.
The number seems to be a sticking point in school and urban debates nationwide.
Social workers at black schools say they get more phone calls asking about overcrowding. At predominantly black suburban schools, parents wonder about the danger of getting their kids into groups with a high number of peers who don’t have much experience or aren’t as friendly or attentive as their children.
No matter the situation, many experts agree that schools can overcome those concerns by ensuring that instructional materials and instruction are shared evenly among the students in a class. Any addition to class size tends to be a needless or dangerous expense and can disrupt children’s concentration and interrupt the flow of the lessons, they say.
“It’s a deeply entrenched belief and practice,” said Teresa Gage Brooks, principal of Robert F. Kennedy Middle School, in Northwest Washington. “They really believe they can teach better in their classrooms. They feel the greatest loss when they have an increase in class size.”
Last year, for example, the district decided to lower class sizes at all but three schools. At those three, the cut in size was so large as to constitute a budget cut.
The Washington school system said the low-income students it serves face a more challenging academic environment, particularly in reading, than students in middle-class schools. Not every school has space to solve the issue; more than half of the schools on the city’s central campus do not have adequate physical spaces.
The district, along with some advocacy groups and the state of California, has launched a pilot project aimed at decreasing class sizes by partnering with other public and private entities to provide at-risk students free transportation, some personnel and materials and perhaps even some equipment, education policy analysts say.
But the drive for a systemwide overhaul of school size, or at least its design, has not been easy. At the central campus, Mr. Brooks said, some teachers told him they supported the idea of smaller class sizes if they had ample supplies, but others wanted flexibility as to how that could be achieved. Others said it didn’t matter to them how the school fit into a districtwide reduction of class sizes because the families they serve needed to be assured that their kids were getting a quality education.
In the end, the central campus has increased a few small classes while it continues a program it established in 2004 to use technology to keep educators and students connected, and which involves weekly one-on-one meetings between administrators and teachers in which parents share their concerns about students’ progress. Another at the main campus will add “mandatory minimum” classes of 20 students in reading, mathematics and science.
For teachers, flexibility is a two-way street. Chris Whitmore, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said one of the main complaints from members was that the school system has not provided principals sufficient flexibility in their hiring and staffing.
“The principal is completely in charge of the teaching staff and the students that they represent,” he said. “They have absolutely no influence whatsoever over how the classroom rolls out.”
The teachers union has circulated a petition calling for a change in district policy so that principals have access to current enrollment numbers, so they can monitor class sizes and make changes to the personnel they need, he said.
“The teachers certainly feel empowered,” he said. “They still feel that the district is a little bit of a bureaucracy.”