Class size increases account for millions of dollars in savings in the proposed budget for county schools.
However, even as the school community views these increases with an air of inevitability in a tight budget year, parents are looking for assurances that already-oversized classes will not see more students shoehorned in.
The $2.5 billion draft budget for fiscal year 2015 includes an increase in class size across all grades — by 0.5 students per teacher in elementary and middle schools and 1.0 student per teacher in high school. That accounts for $15.2 million in savings to help close the school system’s $132 million deficit overall.
“We can fight that all we want, but with the budget the way it is, it’s a losing battle,” said Jenny Strimel, a mother of Vienna Elementary students and the president of Class Size Counts. “Fighting against that is a little bit of a fantasy.”
But Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Karen Garza has said that any plans to alter class size would come with a policy to put a ceiling on class size. Such a measure would prevent the number of students in each class from getting out of hand.
According to Garza, discussions of such a policy already are underway.
“There are about 20 schools we’ve identified that have class size challenges,” Garza said. “We understand where you’re coming from. We don’t need to have classes that large.”
While the state currently has mandates that cap elementary school class sizes at 29 to 35 students per teacher depending on grade, the county currently has no such hard-and-fast rules.
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock District) noted that her youngest son had 34 to 35 students on average in his elementary school classes at Canterbury Woods Elementary.
“It was very stressful on the teachers and on the students,” McLaughlin said. “We absolutely have to provide reassurances that we have a very strategic approach toward ensuring our elementary school class sizes have a limit.”
This year, one second-grade class at Wolftrap Elementary School started the year with 32 students.
“Teachers could barely get around all the desks in there,” said Kelly Desenti, the mother of one of the students in the class. “Kids could barely push their chairs out from their desks. “
The students and parents received relief when the principal converted a reading specialist position into a classroom teacher, redistributing students to the new teacher to achieve a class size of 23. But right now, there are no county measures in place to deal with such a situation.
Part of the problem is that class size as determined by the budget does not directly correlate with class size in the classroom.
The budget increased the number of students per classroom teacher in elementary school from 26.25 to 26.75, in middle school from 26.9 to 27.4, and in high school from 29.5 to 30.5.
“Obviously, you don’t have students coming to you in perfect groupings of 27.5,” Garza said.
Class size means the number of students per classroom teacher position, a number then used to determine funding for classroom positions at each school.
“One student or one-half student doesn’t really mean one students or one-half student,” said Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association. “It just changes the formulas. An elementary school may lose four or six teachers, and the different grades and classes are affected differently.”
If Garza’s new policy comes to pass, once the number of students in a class went above a certain threshold, it would trigger intervention from the school system, which is why Garza calls it a “class size trigger.”
The school would then have several options for relieving the overcrowded classroom, including putting an instructional aide in the room or forming a new class for that grade level.
Strimel appreciates that Garza’s plan would allow for options. But she wants assurance that it will be instituted in time for the next school year.
“We can have a solution less expensive than a whole teacher,” Strimel said. “But we need more than nothing. Something should be done.”