Mandy Bonz juggles 27 English-language learners in her 1st-grade classroom. As part of a new emphasis on early literacy, Superintendent Garth Harries suggested making classes like hers smaller—and expanding the size of under-enrolled classes in middle and high school.
Harries floated that idea at a recent meeting of the Citywide Parent Leadership Team at Wilbur Cross High School.
The idea—a proposal in its earliest stages, not a concrete plan—met a receptive reply from the teachers union president and a 1st-grade teacher. A high-school teacher who teaches a class of five students issued a note of caution about the needs of truant, special education and behind-grade-level kids.
Harries said the idea resulted from a “listening tour” he conducted after becoming superintendent last July. After the tour, he concluded that the district isn’t doing enough to make sure kids at each grade level are ready for the next level of school. In particular, he said, New Haven needs to focus on literacy in grades K to 3. Kids who can’t read well by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than better readers, according to the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.
Third-grade reading is on the rise, but too many kids can’t read in 3rd grade, Harries said.
As of the latest count, only 27.8 percent of New Haven 3rd-graders were reading at grade level, compared to 56.9 percent statewide, according to state standardized tests.
“We need to consider a wide range” of options to boost early reading, Harries (pictured) said. He offered two suggestions.
First, he suggested, “We may need to think about K to 1 being a three-year experience for some kids.”
“Many kids arrive in kindergarten at a very young age,” he explained. By the time they’re finished with 1st grade, they may not be ready for 2nd grade, which is when “academic content starts to accelerate away,” and kids need to know how to read. Harries said he’s not suggesting holding all 1st-graders back. But he said some students need the extra time to prepare for 2nd grade.
Second, he suggested lowering class sizes for grades K to 3, which typically see the highest class sizes in the district—and, in order to find a way to pay for that, perhaps increasing the size of some of the under-enrolled classes in middle and high school.
The teachers contract caps class sizes at 26 for grades K to 2 and 27 for grades 3 to 12. Class sizes tend to be highest in the younger grades. (Hover your mouse on the above chart to see grade-by-grade averages.)
Class sizes are far below the contractual cap in some grades. For example, over 40 percent of 11th and 12-grade classes have between 10 and 19 students, according to a chart produced by the New Haven public schools. For each grade level, the chart shows what percent of classes fall into a certain size (0 to 4 students; 5 to 9; 10 to 14; 15 to 19; 20 to 24, and so on).
So, Harries suggested, the city could reallocate resources to decrease class sizes in grades K to 2 and increase some of them in the upper grades.
Why smaller classes?
Proponents of smaller class sizes cite the canonical STAR study, a randomized, controlled trial in elementary classrooms in Tennessee in the 1980s, which found great benefits to reducing class size from 22 to 15 kids. Significant reductions in class size – along the lines of seven to ten fewer students per class – were shown to boost kids’ educational outcomes and even their likelihood to go to college, especially among disadvantaged kids. Research is less conclusive about smaller reductions in class size, say taking two or three kids out of the classroom.
Class size continues to be a topic of national debate. In national surveys, parents and teachers consistently support smaller class sizes. Some members of the school accountability movement—such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan, philanthropist Bill Gates, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—have been pushing in the opposite direction, towards getting talented teachers to take on more kids. Arguing that the most important factor in a child’s learning is the quality of the classroom teacher, they have proposed paying top teachers extra to take on a bigger load.
Teachers union President Dave Cicarella, who has pushed to lower the maximum class sizes, said he finds Harries’ suggestion reasonable.
“You never want to increase class size as a rule,” Cicarella said. But “we do have classes of 12, 15, 16.”
“It’s not a bad thing to at least look” at increasing those smaller classes if it means making classes smaller for the lower grades, he said.
Cicarella said he also supports exploring the idea of some kids repeating kindergarten or 1st grade. Thirty years ago, he said, kindergarten used to be about learning colors, letters, and some fine motor skills. Now, he said, there are much higher demands. Teachers are teaching more advanced skills, such as phonemic awareness. New standards in literacy and math—including the new Common Core State Standards—are pushing down to higher expectations in kindergarten and 1st grade.
A Welcome Proposal
Mandy Bonz, who teaches a class of bilingual 1st-graders at Fair Haven School, welcomed the proposal to teach fewer kids. Her class, like most at Fair Haven, is full to the max. She teaches 27 kids, which actually exceeds the contractual cap by one. One paraprofessional and one part-time tutor help her.
Speaking one recent morning during indoor recess, as her kids spread out on the floor with board games and puzzles, Bonz said she would welcome more time to meet with kids one-on-one. The current curricula in math and literacy call for teachers to use a “workshop” model, in which they are supposed to confer individually with each child about that child’s tailored goals.
With 27 kids, Bonz said, “it’s really hard to get to everyone.”
Before coming to New Haven, Bonz taught in New Mexico, where she said she had class sizes under 20.
“I feel like I got to know students really well,” she said.
Shrinking her class would allow her to give kids more individual attention, and to “get to know the children as people,” Bonz argued. It would also help with behavior problems, she said.
Bonz said she has been lucky this year to have a group of “angels” who not only behave well but also have stayed in her class the whole year, instead of moving away and creating a vacancy, which would quickly be filled by a mid-year transfer. But in general, the bigger the class is, the more likely there is to be a student who is facing problems that lead to disruptive behavior, she said.
High School Teacher: Be Careful
If New Haven sends relief to students and teachers in classes like Bonz’s, how would the district pay for it?
The mayor has frowned on increasing the schools budget.
Harries said the city would have to have the tough conversation about possibly raising class sizes for older kids.
MarcAnthony Solli (pictured), an English teacher at High School in the Community (HSC) and the head union trustee, said that expansion would have to be done with care.
Solli said he teaches two elective classes that are close to maximum capacity of 27 kids. He also teaches one of several very small classes at the experimental, union-run high school. Most classes at HSC have between 15 and 18 kids, he estimated.
In an extreme example, Solli is teaching one class that has only five students. All of them are taking freshman English a third time after failing it twice, he said.
Solli said there can be good reason for keeping classes small. About a quarter of HSC kids are diagnosed with special needs.
He said some outside the profession may not believe it, but “a class of five can become akin to a class of 25” because of kids’ behavioral, emotional and academic challenges.
“I understand from [Harries’] perspective, as a cost-benefit analysis: Why have a class of 10 to 15 students when you could [almost] double that size, and save the budget?” Solli said. He said he also understands the importance of early literacy—in part because he sees the effects down the road of kids who fall behind.
“I don’t think what he’s asking is unreasonable,” Solli said.
But “I certainly would not want him to eliminate positions among my high-school colleagues.” “I would want him to, before increasing class sizes, to look “at the constitution of the class,” in terms of English-language learning, special education, academic preparation and behavior.
“Before expanding class size,” Solli said, “I would want to make sure the teacher on the ground has the resources to manage the extra students that he or she has.”
“Especially now in the age of reform” and teacher evaluations, teachers are being held accountable for every child’s success, Solli noted. “We want to know who is in that room.”