Will Salt Lake City shrink class sizes?
By lisa schencker
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published May 12 2014 01:01AM
Decades ago, 45 sixth-graders stretched the limits of Elaine Tzourtzouklis’ classroom and teaching ability.
She struggled to fit enough desks in her room. Sometimes, she felt more like a baby sitter than a teacher.
"I still feel guilty for that year because I felt like I did not teach them as well as I could have because there were so many," said Tzourtzouklis, now director of Wasatch UniServ, a part of the teachers’ union serving Salt Lake City.
Though that was years ago, Utah still has some of the largest class sizes in the country — a situation only exacerbated by the recent recession. As of 2010, Utah had an average ratio of 22.8 students per teacher compared with 16 students nationwide. Many classes are much larger than that average.
But now, with the economy recovering, leaders of at least one area school district are considering reducing class sizes.
The Salt Lake City School District is looking at possibilities that include lowering student-teacher ratios across the district, or just in the fourth through sixth grades.
The district wouldn’t need to raise taxes to pay for the changes, but it would likely have to forgo lowering them. It’s a price many educators and parents hope taxpayers are willing to bear.
"It’s so much easier to give students the attention they need when you have less of them," said Michael Sorensen, a fifth-grade teacher at Highland Park Elementary in Salt Lake City.
‘More time for teaching’ • This year, Sorensen has 29 students in his class. That’s lower than the district’s current goal of 30.65 students per teacher in the fourth through sixth grades.
He’s arranged the desks in his room into two giant groups to give kids more room to walk around. The most students he’s ever had was 35, and that was in the 2009-10 school year.
Large classes don’t go unnoticed by kids. One of Sorensen’s students, Megan DuVal, recently asked the district’s board to reduce class sizes.
"As an introvert, it would be helpful to me and other introverted students to have smaller classes because we would not be completely overwhelmed by the noise that almost always comes with a large group of students in the same room," Megan told board members, reading from a letter she wrote before the meeting.
Plus, she added, smaller classes would mean teachers could focus less on discipline issues.
"They would have more time for teaching and helping kids who needed help," she said.
Unless the district makes a change, Highland Park Elementary’s fifth-grade classes are slated to have 33 kids each next year, said principal Shelley Halverson.
The district aims to have 25.65 students per teacher in the first through third grades, which means the fourth through sixth grades tend to have the highest ratios.
"We’re trying to say as a faculty we want the very best start for our youngest members of the community," said Wasatch Elementary principal Julia Miller.
Next year, Wasatch might have to create split classes for upper grades — putting students from two grades in a classroom with one teacher.
It’s not ideal, Miller said, but without it, Wasatch’s fourth- and fifth-grade classes could have more than 40 students each.
"It’s pretty hard to meet individual needs, meet the mandates of the state core and teach with a lot of rigor," Miller said, "when you’re facing that many kids."
Counting the costs • Decreasing class size by two students, just in grades four through six, would cost the district $1.05 million.
Smaller classes for those grades have long been one of the board’s top two priorities, along with expanding early childhood education, said member Heather Bennett.
"We just haven’t had any additional revenue to devote to it," she said.
But due to drops in the district’s debt service payments, officials expect to have an additional $6.8 million for next school year, Bennett said.
As a result, the board could choose to lower its tax rate — which would mean about $31 less a year per $100,000 of a home’s value for taxpayers. Or, members could use the extra dollars on priorities such as lowering class size, giving employees raises and/or adding more all-day kindergarten or preschool classes. The price tags would be the following:
• Extending full-day kindergarten to every kindergarten class in the district would cost about $1 million.
• Giving all district employees a 1 percent raise would cost about $1.6 million.
• Lowering class size by a single student in all grades across the district would cost about $2.25 million.
As the board begins preliminary work on a budget for next year, at least a few members have publicly expressed interest in targeting class sizes, including Bennett, Michael Clara and Rosemary Emery.
Some at the state level have long been somewhat indifferent to the idea, saying it hasn’t been proven to make a difference. Others say class sizes would have to be reduced dramatically to improve education.
A landmark study conducted in Tennessee in the 1980s found that K-3 classes of 13 to 17 students outperformed classes of 22 to 26 students. Still, other research hasn’t been definitive.
But Uintah Elementary parent Jessica Guynn is adamant that smaller classes would be meaningful for students — including her daughter, who will be in fifth grade next year, and her son, who will be a fourth-grader.
Larger classes in the upper grades at Uintah inspired her to take action, and she’s been trying to rally other parents to the cause, contacting PTA presidents and school community council leaders throughout the district.
"I’m absolutely sure class size makes a huge difference," Guynn said, "in a teacher’s ability to nurture and encourage the children on an individual basis."