PAWTUCKET — With all of the emphasis in recent years on standardized test scores and college readiness, the topic of class sizes and the student-to-teacher ratio is one factor to consider. Private schools and charter schools, in particular, tout smaller class sizes as a key factor behind their student bodies' typically higher showings on tests such as the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).
Yet, a look at the Pawtucket School District show that class sizes have remained at the basic manageable level of 23 to 28 pupils per class for almost two decades, even as school officials are currently grappling with higher enrollment at the elementary level.
Deputy School Supt. Kim Mercer, who has been involved in education in Pawtucket for over 26 years, said the current stipulations for class sizes, as outlined in the existing teachers' contract, have been in place for as long as she has been working. It's been quite awhile since public schools had classes with 35 or more students, as many Baby Boomers who attended school in the 1960s and 1970s can recall.
The language in the current teachers' contract states, “The parties shall agree that class size shall be for Grades K-3, no more than 23 pupils and for Grades 4-12, no more than 28 pupils.” However, it also states, “If any of the aforementioned maxims are exceeded, teachers shall be compensated for each additional student beyond 23/28 by determining the teacher's total annual salary and dividing it by the number of pupils the teacher should have had (23/28) in accordance with the above and multiply that result by the actual number of students enrolled in the teacher's class(es).”
In short, that means that a teacher can be forced to take on extra students beyond the 23 or 28 mark, but is paid a stipend for doing so. A look at the district-wide enrollment shows that in many cases, class sizes, particularly at the elementary level, have exceeded the contractual capacity, but rarely by more than one or two students. By the same token, a few elementary school classes are even slightly below the contractual limit, with 18 to 21 students. This is usually due to an extra class being added at a particular grade level due to an unexpected spike in enrollment.
At the secondary school level, while the contract allows for higher numbers, class sizes also vary widely depending on the subject matter. School officials say this is viewed as less problematic because the junior high and high school students change teachers and attend different classes, while the elementary school students essentially remain with one teacher for the entire school day.
Mercer, who has been charting school enrollment and class size figures for the past 15 years as an administrator, said that while overall student enrollment in the district has dropped in the past decade, from total enrollment of 9,682 in 2003-2004 to 8,683 in 2011-2012, there has been a steady increase in the elementary school population in the past couple of years, following a period of decline.
One big factor, Mercer said, was the introduction of district-wide, all-day kindergarten in 2009-2010, which prompted higher enrollment numbers at many of the city's elementary schools. For example, in the 2003-2004 school year, there were 593 kindergarten students enrolled in 20 classrooms, and in 2011-2012, there were 730 students in 32 classrooms.
Another factor that caused an uptick in some of the elementary school enrollments was the closure of two neighborhood Catholic schools, St. Leo the Great in 2007 and St. Mary's the following year. Grade 2, in particular, saw a spike from 680 students in 2003-2004 to 733 students in 2011-2012.
Class sizes throughout the same period have remained fairly steady at all grade levels, with averages showing 22.8 students at kindergarten, 22.5 students for grade 1, 22.9 students at grade 2, 21.6 students at grade 3, 26 students at grade 4, 26.3 students at grade 5, and 23.8 students at grade 6.
At the city's 10 elementary schools, covering grades K-6, the population for the current school year is at 5,345, an increase of 159 students over last year's enrollment. The biggest increases from last year were at Curvin-McCabe, with 48 students; Curtis with 34 students; Baldwin, with 31 students; and Greene with 22 students.
As to the class sizes in grades K-3, all 10 schools had one or more classes with one or two students beyond the contractual 23-student maximum. However, with the exception of kindergarten, none of the classes went beyond 25 pupils except for one grade 2 class at Greene which contained 26 students. One kindergarten class at Winters has 26 students while Baldwin has a 34-student kindergarten class where two teachers are assigned.
At a couple of the schools, Cunningham and Varieur, the population dropped slightly and class sizes reflect this. Cunningham has 29 less students than it did last year, so some of its grade K to 3 classes are at 19 and 20 pupils. Little saw a dip of 9 students and Varieur is operating with 5 less, so class sizes range from 20 and 21 per pupil to the 24 and 25 student maximum.
At grades 4-6, where the contract calls for a maximum of 28 students, four schools, Baldwin, Curvin-McCabe, Greene and Winters had classes with either 29 or 30 students. No schools exceeded the cap, and several were far below the 28 mark, with class sizes at 18, 21 and 22 students.
At the elementary level, the number of students with English as a second language (ESL) has risen somewhat in recent years, going from 233 students in 12 classes in 2003-2004 to 241 students in 13 classes in 2011-2013, but that population also dipped to lower levels during other school years within the decade. For example, there were 156 ESL students in 9 classrooms in 2007-2008, 181 ESL students in 10 classrooms in 2005-2006, and 226 ESL students in 13 classrooms in 2008-2009. The average class size for ESL students during this period stayed at 18.5 students.
The number of special education students at the elementary level has grown steadily in the past decade, but not at dramatic levels. There were 92 special education students in 11 classes in 2003-2004, and there were 126 special education students in 15 classes in 2011-2012. The school years in between show special education enrollment ranging from 101 students in 13 classes in 2004-2005, to 92 students in 11 classes the following year, and then a jump to 112 students in 14 classes in 2008-2009 and 116 students in 12 classes in 2011-2012. The average class size for special education students was 8.4 during this period.
Ronald Beaupre, an elementary school teacher who is also president of the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance, also said that class size has remained consistent in the past two decades even though school officials have had to respond to a recent influx of students in the lower grades.
Beaupre noted that he has been teaching for the past 15 years and the contractual caps of 23 students per class at grades K-3 and 28 for grades 4-12 were in place then and many years before that. He said the way the contract works is that basically, if an extra student shows up that puts a classroom over the minimum, the student would be placed with the most senior teacher. The teacher cannot refuse to take the extra student, but is also compensated for it at an established pay formula.
Beaupre also said that while it isn't spelled out in the teachers' contract, there is also an “unwritten rule” that no class size exceeds the limit by more than two pupils.
Beaupre said that sometimes, if a student shows up unexpectedly and all of the classrooms for that grade have already exceeded their capacity, adjustments have to be made such as having that student bussed to the next closest school. Likewise, if it appears in September that all of the classrooms at a certain grade level would be too far over the capacity, the decision is made to add another teacher and create another class.
Beaupre noted that this scenario almost occurred in September at Curvin-McCabe, where it appeared though registered enrollment that the two grade 4 classes would be at 35 students each. However, when the actual number of students turned up, there was no need to open a third classroom for grade 4 after all.
Beaupre said that, especially at the elementary level, there are a number of classrooms at the two-pupil extra capacity. There is also concern about the limited space inside many of the city's elementary schools in which to put an extra classroom if one happened to be needed. “Our elementary schools are busting at the seams, and there is no additional space to meet the needs,” he said.
Beaupre added that there is much research showing that students—especially at the elementary levels, learn better and have higher achievement rates in smaller sized classes that allow for more one-to-one instruction with the teacher.
However, when asked if class size was expected to be an issue in the upcoming contract negotiations, Beaupre replied, “It's hard to say.” He said that while a discussion of class sizes would likely be part of the overall agenda, he thinks it is premature to discuss any aspects of the bargaining process.
Beaupre said that teachers have different feelings about whether or not an overage of one or two students is acceptable. He added that the presence of a couple of extra students can have more impact at the lower grades, where the students remain with one teacher for six hours, than at the higher grades, where they change classes. In the higher grades, he noted that a teacher could have 30 students in one class and 22 in another, so there is not that experience of being overburdened.
Class size is also relevant to the subject being taught. For example, Beaupre noted that a class like chemistry or keyboarding, where the students need to use individual equipment, would be impacted by overcrowding much more so than a subject where the teacher is lecturing.