Harries Floats Class-Size Switcheroo

Melissa Bailey PhotoMandy 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.

Melissa Bailey File Photo“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.)

NHPS Graphic

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.

Melissa Bailey PhotoMarcAnthony 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.”

Tags: , ,

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 19, 2014  10:07am

It is unreasonable to increase high school class sizes, given the drop-out rate and the poor college preparation of those who do graduate.  I can’t see how this is compatible with a commitment to strong high schools, “college and career readiness” and all that rhetoric. 

Yes, the money for much-needed elementary school teachers has to come from somewhere.  I can think of a few places; can’t you?

posted by: Teachergal on February 19, 2014  10:28am

LOL, Garth Harries believes that class size should be lowered in the early grades. Astounding revelation! Teachers have known this for years. Walk into any private school and count the children, 15 to 18 max. Now they are able to accomplish something. Then walk into a NHPS classroom of 27 K through 8th grade classrooms of 26+ kids…bedlam. Even the best teacher cannot meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of this many students. Then add in the situations that many students ate dealing with at home. Drug and alcohol abuse, lack of food, lack of attention, stressed out parents, children being raised by grandparents…..the list goes on and on. I’ve worked in many of NH’s poor neighborhood schools, many which are now called magnet schools, and the problems still exist.

Garth, lower the numbers, that’s a great idea, and while you’re at it, talk to some of your teachers, they too have great ideas! I never felt that your predecessor was approachable, maybe you can change that. New Haven needs creative and i am hopeful you can provide it! Lastly, I used to attend union meetings led by Dave Lowe, what an inspiration. I would somehow incorporate his wisdom into your vision.

Hope Garth reads this blog, lol!

posted by: kenneth_krayeske on February 19, 2014  10:44am

Tennessee studied a proposed model of class sizes of 6 in elementary school classrooms back in 1978 and found great results. Why it hasn’t been implemented before is beyond me.


posted by: SandyMalmquist on February 19, 2014  11:59am

Superintendent Harries, and every teacher on the planet, understands that education is all about relationships.  Good, solid learning happens in real time, with real people and ample opportunities.  Just do it!

posted by: mechanic on February 19, 2014  12:01pm

Rather than make K-1 a three-year program, why not make preschool for four-year-olds universal? The reason we only have 28% of our kids reading by grade 3, as opposed to 60% statewide, is socio-economic, not the fault of our schools or the children.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on February 19, 2014  12:28pm

Why the either/or set up?  Isn ‘t the school district interested in providing the best education to ALL students?  Our 6-12 children are as deserving of TLC and personalized education as our K-6 children.

I fear this is a carefully calculated strategy to get teachers and admistrators to fight against each other for adequate staffing.  It is a clever, mean-spirited approach, straight rom the “reformers” playbook.

posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on February 19, 2014  12:37pm

Why not ask the federal government for more money to pay for more teachers rather than asking for merit pay for teachers who already teach?

posted by: wbstar on February 19, 2014  1:53pm

One of the many “elephants in the room” in NHPS is the inequity across the district. You visit one school and there are 10-15 children sitting in a 1st grade class and then you go to a school like Fair Haven where EVERY class has 27 students sitting in it. Many magnet schools have fewer than four hundred students with many administrators. Neighborhood schools (which are often the schools labeled “hard to serve”) like Fair Haven have over 800 students and the least amount of resources. Garth needs to look at these inequities in school enrollment. It’s simply not fair and further marginalizes children that already struggle. Fair Haven, with its language needs should never have 27 students in a class and expect students to make the growth they need to in order to be proficient readers.

posted by: Teachergal on February 19, 2014  2:44pm

And while your at it, why not put the talented teachers who are now “coaches” back in the classroom to model what good teaching looks like. I know that teachers tend to look at most coaches as test pushers who pass out practice tests, collect practice tests, pass out CMT tests (now obsolete) nce they are “teacher corrected”, act as administrative informants. I may be wrong but most NH schools have multiple principals, yes principals, with grade level team leaders, that can support the testing process which I understand is now computerized.  I spent so much of my time in the classroom testing, correcting test, collecting test data all in addition to planning creative lessons, preparing materials, developing behavior contracts, individualizinf instruction, developing bulletin boards tomdisplay student work, calling parents, and on and on. I’m not complaining, I loved all of those things BUT the testing changed everything. It’s not surprising scores aren’t rising teachers don’t have time to teach anymore with all the testing distractions. I remember so well walking into classrooms with a teacher doing 1 on 1 DRP tests while the other 25 were working on independent assignments. Really, half the kids didn’t know what they were doing and couldn’t ask questions as the teacher was testing 1 student. I should stop, it’s unproductive. This will continue until students, parents and teachers say no more!!!

posted by: SLP on February 19, 2014  3:07pm

Should class sizes in the lower grades be decreased? Sure. However, this should not be framed as either an apples-to-apples comparison, or a zero-sum game in which the only way gr K-6 classes can shrink is if gr. 7-12 classes increase. It’s not as if packing more kids into fewer 11th-grade English classes at Career HS will automatically make available the properly trained staff or physical space needed to offer more and smaller 3rd-grade literacy classes at Martinez.

Before going after the gr. 7-12 enrollments, we need to understand much more about which of those gr 7-12 classes are small and why. Smaller classes, which are not common at the largest high schools, or the fully enrolled middle schools, may be that way with good reason. In high school, a common reason for a small class is that it is specialized. It may be advanced (Spanish 5), restricted by equipment or focus (photography, EMT training), or remedial/special educational. This is how it should be; as students progress in their education, they need more specialized learning. In addition, New Haven’s transitional high schools, such as Polly McCabe, New Light, or New Horizons, address specific student needs. These schools are small, with smaller class sizes, by design.

I’d like to see a class-size graph like the multicolored one in the article that compares class sizes at individual schools—that would be more usable and potentially meaningful data.

Classes that are too large are not always, but often, detrimental to learning no matter what the grade level. It may make sense to work on increasing middle- and high-school class size to support the goal of decreasing elementary class size, but maybe not. Let’s find ways to help our youngest students without throwing our teens and preteens under the bus.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 19, 2014  6:17pm

Do not drink the kool-Aid.Like I said get ready for this.

Invasion Of The Charter Schools.


posted by: MAZ on February 19, 2014  8:42pm

Smaller class sizes does not mean they have to have 15 students. It is amazing what can be accomplished in a class with 20 students. Mr. Soli’s concerns would not matter if the students come from smaller classes and are on grade level by grade 3. The students on grade level are more interested in completing work everyday. The students not on grade level tend to not work and become disruptive. This disruption is a distraction for all students and then no one is learning. Smaller class sizes will help tremendously but are not a cure all. We still need to get parents interested in education in spite of the type of education they may have received. Children want to know more and have questions all the time, not just while in school. Once questions stop getting answered interest decreases regardless of class size.  I also agree Dave Lowe is an inspiration with his knowledge of education.

posted by: Tom Burns on February 19, 2014  9:16pm

This is a no-brainer—Class sizes for Pre-k should be no more than 12 with two people in class at all times—(10 is preferable) Class sizes for K-3 should be 16 or less with a maximum of 20—and we need to make sure at all levels that there is equity based on a variety of data so that we may get the best results for our children across the board—it will cost nothing but brain power if we utilize our present staff appropriately with this goal in mind—(an equity committee with all players involved can get this done)Tom

posted by: ElmCityVoice on February 20, 2014  9:09am

And here I thought that the Dept. of Ed and the Dept. of Higher Ed had just signed an agreement to work together to bridge the gap between high school graduation and college entry. This process is costly—as we know, since the BOR just eliminated all remedial courses at the community colleges for monetary reasons. This September 2014, high school grads from across the state will have no State college entrance options. Good luck with the cost of private colleges. Can’t we, for once, have a plan and stick to it? Certainly young children need all the help we can give them - and we should. But 17 year olds were once in Kindergarten and they’re still our children. By the way, did anyone read the CTMirror article: “More juvenile offenders, some as young as 13, are now ending up in the boys’ detention facility in Middletown. ” On Jan. 15, 2010, 86 offenders were housed in the boys’ detention facility in Middletown; on Jan. 15 of this year, the population was 138. Please! Let’s help our kids graduate high school with the dream of college fulfilled. Remedial courses lead to college level courses which leads to success!

posted by: NewHavenPublic on February 20, 2014  9:54am

“The Exeter Plan” is a money-saving solution that will create high quality, small classes in New Haven high schools!


(Mr. Harries is a graduate of Philips Exeter Academy.)