30, 40, almost 50 students? Here are the hotspots for overcrowded classrooms in Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergarten teacher Connie Orton reads to her students at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Emily Gourley says she enrolled her two sons in the charter school, where classes are capped at 24 students, to avoid overcrowded classrooms.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heather Rogers teaches 5th grade at John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Emily Gourley says she enrolled her two sons in the charter school, where classes are capped at 24 students, to avoid overcrowded classrooms.

In Bryce Chamberlain’s percussion ensemble class, there are almost twice as many students as instruments.

So while half the class practices with the xylophones and drums, the other half waits 30 minutes for a turn. Chamberlain said it feels “like teaching two classes in one period.”

And that’s one of his smaller classes at Bonneville High School.

There are 48 students in one of his sections of film studies. Another 45 in a second. And 43 in a third. He teaches in a small auditorium just to fit them all.

With so many in his Washington Terrace classroom, Chamberlain finds it hard to build relationships with students, hard to individualize teaching plans, hard to even remember names. He doesn’t want to hand out writing assignments, either, because he doesn’t have enough time to read them and provide feedback.

“It limits what I can do as a teacher,” he said.

Utah undoubtably has some of the largest classes in the country. Its latest student-to-teacher ratio, calculated in 2016 by the Utah Board of Education, was 22-to-1 (meanwhile, the national average is 16-to-1). That’s only an average, though, and some classrooms in the state balloon well beyond that to 30, 40 and almost 50 students.

Just a few weeks into the new school year, The Salt Lake Tribune asked readers to point out overcrowded classrooms across the state. Granite School District, which stretches from Magna to Cottonwood Heights, was often mentioned. But the issue extended from that epicenter through all of Salt Lake County, south into Utah County and north into Weber County, where Chamberlain teaches, an area that has seen an explosion of new, young residents in recent years.

“We have a lot of growth,” said Lane Findlay, spokesman for Weber School District, who added that the solution is to build new schools and adjust boundaries over time. “We’re experiencing some challenges with increased enrollment.”

One teacher in Alpine School District said she has between 34 and 38 students in her ninth-grade math classes. A parent reported 39 kids in her son’s fifth-grade class at Enterprise Elementary in southern Utah. A chemistry instructor at Olympus High School said she had 41 students in labs. Another at Alta High School said she had 44 in an honors class.

“I had to move in more chairs for all the kids, and there are still more wanting to get in, not just to my class but also the school,” wrote Katie Wilkinson. She even agreed to trade in a prep period to take on an extra class.

Lisa, a teacher in Salt Lake County, said there are 46 students in one of her English classes and only 40 desks. The six kids who show up last have to sit on the floor.

“I cannot navigate my classroom,” said Lisa, who asked that her last name not be used to talk openly about her job. “It’s horrendous. And it’s grading hell.”

There are only 40 laptops assigned to her classroom, so she doesn’t assign as much computer work as she’d like. It also makes required online testing a nightmare, she said, because she’s running around to other teachers asking if she can borrow their Chromebooks.

Utah has long ranked at the bottom in the nation for per-pupil spending, and she wants state lawmakers to allocate more funding for education so that districts can hire more teachers.

Ben Horsley, spokesman for Granite district, says some of the problem is caused by an individual school’s scheduling and hiring. Lisa, for instance, is the only instructor at her school who teaches her particular English course.

It’s possible that some of the students in overcrowded classes will be shifted around, Horsley said, if schools can find another instructor or split them off into a different course after Oct. 1 — when the district views enrollment numbers after the initial shuffling and transfers at the start of the year.

Capping all classes in the state’s public schools at 18 or 20 students, a level many parents and teachers say they would prefer, would be “about a billion-dollar problem,” Horsley added. Lowering it any less than that likely wouldn’t have a substantial impact either, according to studies from the National Education Policy Center. A landmark study conducted in the 1980s found that classrooms with about 15 students had the highest test scores.

“When the class sizes are lower, the students perform better in all subjects,” said Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews.

Not everyone agrees on the importance of smaller classes as a route for improved academic performance. Some believe the solution isn’t fewer students crammed into desks but more technology.

“The question really shouldn’t be: Are class sizes too large?” said Robyn Bagley, board chairwoman for the Utah-based group Parents for Choice in Education. “The question is: Are we modernizing education in ways that allow teachers to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners more effectively and with more innovation? If we are, class size becomes more and more irrelevant.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, a member of the Utah House Education Committee and a former teacher, suggested it’s more complex than just adding a few more computers. Teachers, she said, get burned out with larger class sizes and leave the profession early. The only way she sees to retain them is to hire more of them so that they have fewer students to manage or increase their pay. Both require more funding.

To do that, she’s voting “yes” on the Our Schools Now ballot question that asks Utahns whether they support a 10-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase that would allow more funding to be shifted to schools.

“Teachers want to do right by every student,” said Moss, D-Holladay, “But everything is stacked against them. They should be our highest priority.”

Parents, too, are troubled by their kids being squeezed into overfilled classrooms. Emily Gourley enrolled her two sons in a charter school this year just to avoid it. Her youngest, 7-year-old Jacob, has some fine-motor delays that affect his muscles. He wasn’t getting the attention he needed, Gourley said, with 27 other students to compete with at his Pleasant Grove elementary school.

Now, Jacob and his 9-year-old brother, Collin, go to John Hancock Charter School, where all classes are capped at 24.

Three weeks into school, Gourley said, “This year has already been so much better. … It’s a world of difference.” The teachers have developed an individualized plan for Jacob and met with Gourley to discuss it. That didn’t happen until four months in at their other school.

Some respondents said they moved their kids to private or charter schools because of large class sizes in public schools. Teresa Day wonders if an alternative school is something she should try with her sons, Axtyn and Jaizik.

Right now they attend West Elementary in Tooele. Axtyn has 34 students in his fifth-grade class; Jaizik has 36 students in second grade, which is half-filled with first-graders because of high enrollment numbers.

Day doesn’t like the split class because she said the teacher doesn’t have enough bandwidth to teach both levels. She ends up spending more time, Day added, with the students who are falling behind and leaves those on pace to wait for instruction.

“I feel like now they’re going to be held back,” she said. “My kids are getting in trouble for being bored. They’re being expected to just sit and be patient. That’s not productive at all.”

Utah lawmakers have proposed capping class sizes in the past, but the legislation has never gotten far. In 2013, Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, suggested limiting kindergarten classes to 20 students, first and second grade to 22 and third grade to 24. There was no money in the plan — and teacher Lisa McAfee felt there was no attention paid to secondary schools.

McAfee teaches art at Hunter High School, which has chosen to cap some classes. But that number is 40 for her classes, she said, and that’s still too high. Like Chamberlain in his percussion ensemble and film studies classes, she’s limited on what projects she can assign.

She has to budget for time — potentially about two minutes per student — and supplies — a few squirts of paint each.

McAfee said: “If I had 20 students, I could do more."