As will come as news to no one, I put a high priority on keeping our existing schools open; among other things, I think it’s a key ingredient in maintaining community support for district initiatives and it plays an important role in maintaining livable, family-friendly neighborhoods in the central core of Iowa City. But I don’t deny that there are costs involved in keeping our smaller schools open, and I think it’s important to think about what those costs are and whether there are ways to mitigate them.
In this post, I want to consider the effect of small schools on class size. When the district sets class size goals, it can give the impression that class sizes can be fine-tuned. For example, the most recent draft of those goals suggests that most elementary schools should have class sizes of no more than 26 from kindergarten through second grade, and no more than 30 in grades three through six. (The class size goals are lower than that in schools with higher levels of academic need, but most schools will not fall into that category.)
But conforming to those goals is easier said than done, especially in our smaller schools. A school with an enrollment of 240 is likely to have about 34 kids per grade. What do you do with that number? A 34-kid kindergarten classroom is much larger than ideal, so the district would almost certainly choose to break it into two 17-kid classes—a lot nicer, but way below what we could afford to staff district-wide. What if 40 sixth-graders show up? Again, 20 is a wonderful class size, but it’s way below the district median for sixth-graders.
In other words, smaller schools tend to produce more outlier class sizes, forcing the district to choose between class sizes that are significantly above the goals or significantly below them. This effect lessens somewhat as you get into enrollments of over three hundred. A 300-kid school will tend to produce class sizes in the twenties, which is at least better than having to choose between 17 or 34. But it would still be subject to year-to-year fluctuations that could generate uncomfortable choices, and class sizes in the low twenties are still below the district median.
By contrast, large schools give the district enough flexibility that they seldom result in outlier class sizes. In a 600-kid school (assuming the kids are spread out evenly over the seven grades), you can have class sizes of about 21 in the lower grades and 29 in the higher grades. Even if a bigger-than-usual group shows up in one grade, it gets spread out over three or four classrooms, so it’s not liable to generate class sizes as high as 34. As a result, the large school may be less likely to get an additional teacher than the small school with the 34-kid cohort.
In particular, smaller schools pose a challenge for the district’s weighted resource allocation model—that is, the effort to allocate smaller class sizes to school with higher academic need. To create smaller class sizes in high-need schools, we need to tolerate larger class sizes in the remaining schools. If that effect is spread out over many schools, the effect on any one school will be smaller and thus the model will be more politically sustainable. But it’s not so easy for smaller schools to take a “fair share” of that effect—again, because the choice will often be between a class size that greatly exceeds the goals and one that is much smaller than average. If the smaller schools get lower-than-average class sizes, even when they are not high-need schools, the burden of the resource reallocation will fall disproportionately on larger schools. If the smaller schools are expected to tolerate class sizes far above the goals, the burden will fall disproportionately on them. Either way, it becomes harder to sustain the reallocation effort.
Again, I’m certainly not trying to make the case for closing smaller schools. But if we’re going to resist the ongoing pressure to consider closing some of them (and not just Hoover), it makes sense to do some problem-solving around the issue of outlier class sizes. I’ll explore some possibilities in an upcoming post.