How many children can or should be in an elementary school class?
That’s what the Wyoming School Facilities Commission is looking at from a capacity and cost-savings perspective for kindergarten through third grade. The commission voted in September to raise the allowable capacity to 25 in order to optimize the use of available space in classrooms.
The commission, an oversight agency with the purpose of ensuring adequate and equitable K-12 educational facilities throughout the state, first raised the idea this summer. The board consists of seven voting members appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature.
The vote to change the acceptable capacity does not implement any funding cuts or mean that any increases in class sizes will automatically occur. Raising class sizes was considered by the state Legislature in two bills this winter, but neither bill passed.
A memorandum from the Wyoming Legislative Service Office states that if elementary class sizes were 19, the state would save $44.7 million and need 589 fewer teachers. If elementary class sizes were 20 the state would save $57 million and need 745 fewer teachers.
In Teton County School District No. 1 class sizes of 19 would result in an estimated reduction of $1.6 million in state funding and 17.1 teachers, while class sizes of 20 would result in an estimated reduction of $2.1 million and 21.7 teachers. Class sizes of 25 aren’t listed in the report.
Already over capacity
Teachers say that from an educational and achievement perspective increasing capacity to 25 students or close to it would be too much.
“A class of 25 kindergartners would not be realistic and really would cause significant problems later on,” Colter Elementary kindergarten teacher Megan Fouts said. “We must keep class sizes as low as we can.”
The state mandated that K-3 classrooms have a 16-to-1 student teacher ratio until March, when lawmakers removed the requirement but kept the funding model based on that ratio the same.
When a school can’t meet that ratio it applies for a waiver. Jackson and Colter elementary schools have applied for waivers in the past, even when modular classrooms were in use to deal with overcrowding.
Assistant Superintendent Jeff Daugherty said that though classroom dimensions vary, the district is over capacity at the elementary level. The average number of students in K-3 classrooms at Colter Elementary is 18 students, while at Jackson Elementary it’s 16.25 students. Statewide the average is 19.7.
“While we understand the question of how many students can fit in a space, our goals are to ensure we provide the educational environment and resources that our students deserve and our parents expect,” Daugherty said.
The early years are a time when teachers help students develop as individuals socially and emotionally and set up students for later academic success.
Teton County School District No. 1 has a goal that all students are proficient readers by third grade.
“This is the critical period for early literacy,” Fouts said. “If we invest in early literacy development we’ll really see those gains.”
Teachers often break their classes into small groups. Fouts pointed out that adding three, four or five more kids is the equivalent of adding another small group.
“They wouldn’t be getting enough attention,” Fouts said.
Handling the challenge
Principal Scott Eastman agreed and reiterated that teaching school readiness and helping language learners would be a “significantly more challenging scenario.”
“Class size is directly proportionate to the challenge of the job,” Eastman said. “It’s a bigger workload for teachers.”
A K-3 classroom with 25 students, he said, would be a “toxic scenario for our schools.”
Having enough quality time with individual students, teachers say, is paramount to building respect, rapport and trust.
“You need to know kids to teach them,” Fouts said. “They need to feel heard. The more attention kids get, the better.”
Fellow Colter kindergarten teacher Meredith Huggins said that she has 17 students in her class this year, something she called “pretty dreamy” compared with larger classes in years past.
“You get to know them academically and personally,” Huggins said.
The ability to connect with students through small class sizes, Eastman said, helps Teton County School District recruit quality teachers.
“It inspires people to come work here,” he said.
It also encourages parents to keep their children in public school.
“When parents choose private schools, those are big factors,” Eastman said. “We want our public schools to offer the same individualized support and attention.”
Eastman is thankful class sizes are what they are currently and hopes they’ll remain small in the future.
“To date, we have been incredibly fortunate as a district to have small class sizes in our elementary classrooms,” he said. “The board of trustees and the superintendent have made this a priority and have supported principal requests for additional staff to accommodate our growing student population. This has had a profoundly positive impact on teachers and students, and for that we are grateful.”
But teachers say that they wouldn’t stop doing their best to educate students if class sizes increase.
“I’d figure it out,” Huggins said.
“I’ll always do my best to serve them,” Fouts added. “Regardless of what comes our way, teachers are resilient. We can handle a lot of challenges.”