Ideally, Duluth East High School chemistry teacher Cindy Grindy says, she’d have perhaps a couple dozen students in each of her college credit-earning classes.
As it is, she teaches classes of 25, 31, 35, 36 and 37 students for an average of 32.8 per class - students who are, Grindy notes, very “motivated” to succeed in spite of the large class sizes.
“Would it be awesome to get down to 24 kids in a class? Yes,” she said. “Is the public willing to pay for that? Probably not. But without the (2013) levy, it would have been really dire.”
But still, too many classes have too many kids, teachers say. This year there are 40 or more students in 12 percent of classes at the school of 1,560 students.
More than a decade ago, complaints would come when classes rose above 30 students, said East union building steward and teacher Greg Jones, and now people don’t feel justified in complaining until a class moves beyond 40 students.
“There is a new threshold,” he said. “We want to make sure we keep plugging away and saying, ‘This is not the new normal.’”
East’s three union building stewards recently sent an email to Duluth School Board members apprising them of the situation at the school and asking for more teachers to lower class sizes, as the board begins next year’s budgeting process.
“When the levy was passed one of the key focus areas was reducing class size,” the letter reads. “Our data from the last 5 years would indicate this has not happened at East.”
The letter points to math, science and physical education courses as being “consistently” large. There are other effects, the letter says. Not having enough teachers results in some students taking a study hall or not getting a wanted class. When two smaller sections are combined and the new class is too large, students can get bumped. And scheduling conflicts or too-big classes can drive students to off-campus post-secondary education - resulting in less state money for the district - or lead to the loss of students already “in the margin,” increasing the school’s dropout rate and widening achievement gaps.
The levy passed by Duluth school district voters in 2013 was meant in part to lower class sizes throughout the district. The $1.45 million annually set aside for that effort goes to lower the teacher-to-student ratio by one, and added more than 15 teachers to district schools resulting, on average, in two to four fewer students in many classes.
For example, since 2013, Denfeld and East each went from a class size average of 30 to 28. The St. Cloud school district is slightly larger in size, with about 10,000 students to Duluth’s 8,300. Its high schools have similar average class sizes; the average at Apollo High School is 28.7, with the average at Technical High School 30.1.
In Duluth, before the 2013 levy, “some class sizes were in the 50s, especially at East, and we don’t have that anymore” said Duluth Superintendent Bill Gronseth. “But some tough decisions have to be made based on what kids sign up for.”
Gronseth refers to how lower numbers are not consistent across the board, often varying by subject matter, the number of sections and scheduling in the secondary schools.
East juniors Tony Pitoscia and Ben Churchill said most of their classes enroll between 35 and 40 students. Both had to hold off on taking a psychology class they wanted this year, opting for other choices that weren’t as full.
“Some classes are so full they ask students to switch into different classes,” Pitoscia said.
Classes are large, they said, but kids still get the help they need from teachers after school or in class, although they sometimes have to wait.
Denfeld in 2012 had many upper-level classes in the 40s, with one topping out at 49 students. Denfeld Principal Tonya Sconiers declined comment about current class sizes.
Choices are made
Some schools have more state money because of lower-income populations, and that money allows them to reduce class sizes further if they choose to spend it that way. Denfeld, Lincoln Park Middle School and Myers-Wilkins Elementary are such schools. But East isn’t a school that can do that to a great extent.
In the secondary schools, where there are course choices, some sections may be smaller or bigger than others depending on need and popularity. It also depends on what areas are prioritized. Right now, ninth grade is a priority, said both Gronseth and East Principal Laurie Knapp.
“It’s a huge transition year for kids,” Knapp said. “If you don’t see success in ninth grade, lots of times they are gone by the time they are juniors.”
Fewer kids in a classroom might mean more attention for them, Gronseth said, but added attention isn’t necessarily more beneficial than targeting specific groups for more support.
Ninth-grade science - which has one of the biggest failure rates for that grade, Knapp said - now has much smaller classes than in the past, with about 30 students in most of the 14 sections at East. English and math classes now are smaller for that grade, too, and there is a “school within a school” that caters to a group of 12 at-risk kids who take all of their classes together.
Duluth secondary schools have smaller sections of reading and math for students most in need, resulting in higher numbers for some advanced classes. Two sections of a slower-paced Algebra II, which is now a graduation requirement, are offered at East and allow for small class sizes. Some math intervention labs had to be culled, though, because the numbers were too small, Knapp said - although those who had enrolled are being helped through other measures.
“If 10 kids want a class, I can’t offer that,” she said. “But if it’s at 26 or 27, yeah. We want to do that,” so some electives have smaller numbers than others. But some electives, such as language classes, often are larger.
Class size issues still exist, Knapp said, but there have been improvements.
“In a perfect world, everybody would get what they wanted, when they wanted it, in a class size of 28,” she said. “In reality, kids have to make choices and we have to make choices.”
Better, but work to be done
East science teacher Tim Velner has both freshman and sophomore classes. All of his freshman sections have fewer than 30 students, down from a pre-levy era of up to 40. This year there is room for easily distracted students to move closer to the front, he said, and he gets to know his students with fewer of them to manage.
“I know who is on the ski team now, who is playing basketball, who is doing theater,” he said, and he can talk to them about their lives. “That does more to get a student engaged with you than almost anything else I can do. When you have (too many) students, you can’t do that.”
Ordean East Middle School no longer has any classes at 40 students or above, with the exception of band.
“This year, we are closer to the low 30s in just about every class,” said Principal Gina Kleive. That’s also down from a period of high 30s and 40s. Some of the larger classes are in science and social studies, because the school has chosen to invest in smaller reading and math classes.
The middle school is better off than it was, Kleive said, but a goal is to make class sizes smaller still.
“I’m grateful we aren’t in the same place we were,” she said.
Lester Park Elementary, which in recent years has had one of the biggest enrollments among Duluth elementary schools, has kindergarten classes of no more than 23 students this year. Because of that investment, the rest of the school has classes of mostly 26 and 27 students. The school’s enrollment dropped this year from about 550 to 510, Principal Sue Lehna said, meaning it didn’t get as much money from the district. That meant an employee who worked with students who needed extra help last school year couldn’t be supported this year. The school chose to keep smaller kindergarten classes instead, Lehna said.
What the levy money did to lower class sizes “is a start,” said School Board Chairwoman Annie Harala. Board members hear from teachers and parents about the issue, and “it’s not being ignored,” she said.
The levy also worked to update curriculum and narrow achievement gaps, “and we’re seeing a slow turning of our district in a positive way,” she said.