The timeline above details the history of Wisconsin’s SAGE program, which provides funding for schools with low-income students in order to reduce student-teacher ratios at the K-3 grade levels. Currently, the program is stated to provide $2,250 per low-income student in eligible schools to reduce student-teacher ratio to 18:1 or 30:2. Eligible districts are given the option to reject SAGE funding if they wish, which has become more common as funding has decreased. While the funding helps alleviate the cost of adding a new teacher, it does not always (or usually) cover the entire teacher’s salary.
By Kristen Kukowski
When asked what she would do if faced with the prospect of having 25 to 30 elementary students in each classroom, Teresa Carranza, principal of Midvale Elementary in Madison, simply stated, “I would do the same thing I do here.”
For Carranza, whose school’s classes are capped at 18 students because of Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program, this was merely a hypothetical problem. It is a reality for many Milwaukee elementary schools.
With public school districts’ funds stretched to their limit and class sizes ticking up, administrators and teachers must find creative ways to keep classes focused on one-on-one, student-to-teacher interaction. In this article, educators consider the secrets to the utopian classroom: Smaller class sizes for younger grades, strong familial relationships, professional development for teachers, team-building exercises and adequate technological resources.
Class sizes: age-dependent
Research has shown the optimal class size for elementary-aged students is between 15 and 18 students, yet often times an administrative decision may come down to adding an additional teacher at the kindergarten or fifth grade level. When these issues arise, many professionals agree it is imperative to have smaller class sizes at the younger grade levels.
“It is important to have smaller class sizes for younger kids because they have less self-help skills – doing things like zipping their coat, doing things like being able to accurately follow multi-part directions,” said Beth Grau, former kindergarten teacher and curriculum and instruction professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education.
In the younger levels at Midvale Elementary—kindergarten through third grade—classroom management efforts can often get in the way of instruction.
“I find volunteers, I find student teachers, I find parents, I find anyone I can to add to the classroom to support kids in learning,” Carranza said.
Julie Kerekes, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, observed this during her practicum studies in a combined first and second grade classroom.
“Having two people in the room, even if the room had twice as many kids, the teacher would never have to stop talking and take away from the other kids’ learning time, the ones who weren’t misbehaving,” Kerekes said.
Carranza also advocates smaller classes for younger students.
“You want to build a strong foundation in terms of [the students’] literacy and math and making sure we can attend to that to make sure that happens,” Carranza said. “I think it allows them to be more successful as they get older.”
For older students, these general classroom management skills are not as imperative to an educational environment. That affects class size. Dr. Anu Ebbe, principal at Shorewood Elementary in Madison, attests to this.
“For me, 30 was a fine number of students,” said Ebbe, a former tenth grade biology teacher. “However, 30 kindergarteners and first graders would be a lot — a lot of bodies in a classroom. I think from a teacher’s perspective that would make it tough, unless there are other bodies in the classroom, where we can break the class into smaller groups.”
Fortunately for the elementary schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), an overcrowded classroom is not the most pressing matter at hand. Of the 32 elementary schools in the district, 21 have SAGE contracts with the state, according to Susan Abplanalp, MMSD Deputy Superintendent. These SAGE grants provide aid of $2,250 per low-income K-3 child with the mandate that class sizes for these levels are capped at 18 students. This money is often put toward hiring an additional teacher to help decrease average class size.
Good teachers, communal relationships, resources
Abplanalp said the small class size is not the only factor in play when creating the ideal educational environment.
“It takes more than just class size to improve student performance,” she said. “It takes a teacher who works toward making sure that all students are at proficiency.”
Additionally, Abplanalp discussed “second-order change,” which is a change in philosophy, as opposed to strategy. For example, a first-order change of strategy would be creating smaller classes, whereas a second-order change would be changing the relationships and teaching philosophies used in a school. Student achievement is not determined by only one factor, but instead through the confluence of many factors, ranging from an engaging, attentive teacher, to adequate resources for the students to utilize.
Carranza described education as a social construct, comparing it to a community effort where different aspects play different roles. According to Carranza, 61 percent of the students at Midvale Elementary are from low-income families, 32 percent are white, and 38 percent are Latino. The diversity at this school brings about another hardship: many of the students do not speak English as their first language. However, Carranza does not let that stand in her way of making sure they all receive the most effective instruction. She aims to create that sense of community with her students’ families.
“When you have tight relationships with families, then schooling in general is more effective,” she said.
While many of these factors, such as financial or language barriers, are out of the educational system’s hands, teacher quality is within its control.
“We need to be able to provide professional development for the teachers that we have in order to be able to provide the highest quality of instruction, regardless of the class size,” Grau said.
MMSD teachers strive to help their students achieve this high quality of instruction. Phillip Edmonds teaches a combined fourth and fifth grade class of 25 students at Shorewood. While Edmonds’ current class size is ideal, he knows he must maintain high quality instruction if his class size increases.
“I would definitely be emphasizing team building and community building,” Edmonds said. “I would create games that build on kids getting to know one another, through games or sharing or shared experiences. I would have at least one field trip right in the beginning of the year, because those types of things bring people together, and we often have to rely on one another in settings that are unfamiliar to us.
“I do those kinds of things anyway in my classroom, but I would probably have to do it even more and for longer with a bigger classroom,” he added.
Whether a school’s challenge is overcrowded classrooms, a diverse student background, limited funding or some other obstacle, administrators, principals and teachers have used their creative ingenuity to tackle these adversities head-on.
“I have a hugely diverse population here,” Carranza said with a smile on her face. “And despite that, all the kids are learning amazing things, so I think that can happen anywhere.”