The Derry School Board will ask its Policy Committee to develop a set of “guidelines” for the new Facilities Study Committee, after a presentation on class sizes by Assistant Superintendent MaryAnn Connors-Krikorian brought both questions and answers.
Connors-Krikorian’s presentation took up most of the Feb. 10 School Board meeting, with teachers and community members offering input in a public comment section.
Laura Nelson, superintendent, said her colleague had been asked to look into class sizes at the request of the board.
Class sizes are an issue in Derry, as several residents concerned about taxes have pressed the board for closing schools and/or laying off teachers, while the board has said it will wait until the Facilities Report has been digested and dissected.
Connors-Krikorian began by reminding the board and audience that the New Hampshire Department of Education’s recommended class sizes are 25 or fewer in Kindergarten-Grade 2, 30 or fewer in Grades 3-5 and 30 or fewer in middle and senior high schools.
But there is also wording on the numbers schools should “try to achieve,” including 20 or fewer in K-2 and 25 or fewer in 3-5, she said.
Derry’s recommendation for sizes, from a 2002 School Board, is K-3, 18; Grades 4-5, 22; and middle school, 25.
Connors-Krikorian discussed a chart on New Hampshire school districts and said the majority of the towns sending students to Pinkerton Academy are comparable to Derry in class sizes:
• Chester, pre-K-Grade 3, 18 or less, Grade 4, 20 or less, and Grades 5-8, 25 or less.
• Auburn, pre-K-3, 20 or less, Grades 4-8, 25.1 or less.
• Hampstead, pre-K and kindergarten, 18 or less; Grades 1 and 2, 20 or less; Grades 3 to 5, 23 or less, and Grades 6-8, 25 or less.
• Hooksett, pre-K to 2, 20.1 or less, 3 to 8, 25.1 or less.
On a chart of average elementary class sizes throughout the state, Derry’s class sizes were below the state average in grades 1 and 2, with 17.2 children per full-time teacher as opposed to the state’s 17.9.
Derry was above the state average in grades 3 and 4, with 20.2, compared to the state’s 19.3, and above in grades 5-8, with 21.5 compared to the state average of 17.5.
Derry’s student-to-teacher ratio as of Oct. 1, 2013, was 12.8, compared with a state average of 12.1. Auburn was 12.2, Chester 12.5, Hampstead 11.6 and Hooksett 12.9.
The board had asked the administration for a recommendation based on Connors-Krikorian’s research and she provided one, while warning that it was a recommendation and not set in stone. “This is something for you to consider,” she said.
The administration’s recommendation is that for kindergarten the district “strive to achieve” not more than 18 per class; first and second grade, not more than 20; third grade, not more than 22; 4th and 5th grades, not more than 25; and 6 to 8, not to exceed an average class size of 25.
Connors-Krikorian pointed out that the nature of middle school is fluid, with “pull-outs” and students changing classes, “so we’ll work with an average in middle school.”
Research on Class Size
Connors-Krikorian had a separate packet distilling her research into the class size issue. “It is one of the most widely-researched topics in education,” she said.
The largest study to date was Tennessee’s Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio). In the 1970s, STAR involved 7,000 K-3 students in 80 schools from 42 school districts over a four-year period.
Connors-Krikorian said, “Although all the students benefited from the smaller classrooms, the greatest benefit was to children who were socioeconomically disadvantaged and to minority children, who doubled their progress.”
Another study, Lasting Benefits, showed that students in small classrooms in grades K-3 continued to exhibit higher academic progress when they were put in larger classrooms in grades 4-7.
Wisconsin’s SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) found Grades 1-3 students in a 15-1 ratio classroom scored significantly higher on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills in reading, language arts and mathematics, compared to students in a larger classroom. According to the report, the first-grade students maintained their gains through second and third grades.
“What they’re really looking for,” Connors-Krikorian said, “is the maintenance of scores.”
In Israel the policy is to have no more than 40 students per teacher, and when a class hits 41, a new teacher is hired, Connors-Krikorian said. That automatically splits the three classes to 27 each.
The document said that smaller classes result in more time for teacher “intervention” with a student, better teacher morale and reducing distractions in the room.” However, the experts agreed, the model only works with a good and experienced teacher at the helm.
Researcher Andrew Rotherham wrote, “Small classes are better, but only if the teacher is a very good one.”
Will It Work in Derry?
In the board’s discussion, member Brenda Willis said that when the district instituted kindergarten it was told it had to have a certain amount of square footage per child or cap the number at 18. “Is that still true?” she asked.
Nelson said kindergarten requires more square footage because of the nature of the program, which draws the little ones to different “centers” throughout the day. “Our school approval,” she said, “would be contingent on the space.”
In the public comment portion, resident and teacher Wendy Mahoney said with the new Readers Workshop program, teachers need time to have conferences with their students and smaller classes worked better.
Resident Steve Barry said Connors-Krikorian’s research disputed some beliefs in the district that school staffing is “bloated” because of declining enrollment.
Barry said the district should not use the class sizes of the 1970s as a guideline. “Back then there was an 85 percent graduation rate with 10 to 15 percent going to college, and Special Education did not exist,” he said. “The current class sizes are a planned response to the old model.”
Parent James Zaniboni expressed concern that the district would change the class sizes, and then a couple of new families would move in. “We can’t control the variables,” he said.
Nelson responded with a selection of options. There’s the “efficiency model,” she said, where all first-and second-graders are housed together, all fourth-and-fifth, etc. “With that we could see clearly where we needed to add a section,” she said, adding that the downside would be the discontinuing of “neighborhood” schools.
The second model is maintaining the neighborhood schools but looking at multi-age classrooms, she said, and the third is “trying to manage the way we are.”
It’s a tight window, Nelson said, noting that “we budget on the Oct. 1 figures and we have to have teacher contacts out by April 15.”
Resident Noreen Taber recommended having something in the guidelines as to when the district adds or subtracts a classroom. “That’s when people bring emotion to the table,” she said, adding that having a guideline will streamline the process if it is needed.
“You may only gain 10 new kids, but what if all 10 are in the same classroom?” she asked.
Taber added that she didn’t want to see a recommendation until after the Facilities Committee report.
Donna Michaud, a resident and teacher at Grinnell Elementary School, was one of the teachers affected in 2013 when the district added a fifth-grade classroom. “The administration and board did what it had to do,” she said. “Was it the right move? Yes. Was it hard on the kids? Yes.”
After the public comment, the board discussed how to proceed. Member Jeri Murphy said it would be best to have guidelines, not a policy, but the Policy Committee could develop the guidelines.
Chairman Neal Ochs said it was important to have flexibility. “The administration needs the ability to make decisions, and if they need our input, they can ask,” he said.
He thanked Connors-Krikorian for her work, noting, “The class size issue is never easy to deal with. It’s important to do our due diligence and to do it right.”