I’ve been posting about how small schools tend to generate outlier class sizes. These posts naturally raise the question: What can we do to minimize the likelihood of outlier class sizes in small schools? But they also raise another question: How should we determine how many kids it makes sense to enroll in any particular elementary school building? In this post, I want to consider the latter question.
When the district draws attendance zones—or even if it abandons geographic attendance zones and tries something like a magnet school—it can’t avoid setting target enrollment numbers for the buildings. There is a wishful-thinking aspect to that task, since it’s hard to predict how many kids will show up from year to year. But it’s an unavoidable task. It affects not just how we draw attendance zones but also how we assess whether to build new elementary capacity.
In determining the target enrollment for a particular building, we need to assume that there will be a roughly equal number of kids in each grade level. We all know this assumption is false, and that there will sometimes be a lot of variation in the enrollment in different grades. But that variation is arbitrary and unpredictable, so you can’t plan around it. So I don’t see any alternative to assuming equal enrollment in each grade level (while recognizing that unpredictable departures from that assumption will be the norm).
Our district has assigned “capacity” numbers to its buildings. In the past, it did so by simply multiplying the number of classrooms by a typical class size (in those days, 23). More recently, it used consultants to assign capacity numbers based on square footage and other factors. But neither one of those methods gives us a good sense of what the target enrollment should be. It doesn’t always make sense to use every available room as a general education classroom, and any enrollment target has to be realistic about what class sizes the district can afford to staff.
An example: In my previous post, I argued that in a school with fourteen available classrooms, the highest number of students you could enroll, without exceeding the class size goals, is 364. But what if there are sixteen available classrooms? Shouldn’t that mean that you could enroll more kids? But it doesn’t, because there’s no way to spread seven grades over sixteen rooms without creating very problematic class sizes. In that situation, I believe the fourteen-classroom model is still your best option (subject to alternatives I’ll soon discuss). So the presence of those extra two classrooms doesn’t necessarily increase the number of gen-ed kids you can reasonably aspire to enroll. It may well make sense to put those two extra rooms to some other use, such as preschool classrooms or dedicated special ed rooms.
In other words, there’s a difference between how many kids will “fit” in a building and what the target enrollment should be. I don’t have a strong opinion about what the optimal numbers are; if you think there’s a better number to shoot for in a building with fourteen (or sixteen) available classrooms, I hope you’ll chime in with a comment. But many of our current “capacity” numbers are very unhelpful. Mann’s listed capacity is 242—but what is the model for dividing 242 up into classes in seven grade levels? Alexander’s listed capacity is 500—but we put temporaries there as soon as the enrollment approached 400, in part because it qualifies for smaller class sizes as a high-need school. “Old” Hoover’s capacity is listed as 304—but since it can easily use fourteen rooms as gen-ed classrooms, it would make sense to put at least 350 kids there. (Before the closure vote, it did enroll that many.) We have special-use classrooms at many schools, but we don’t adjust those schools’ capacity numbers to take into account the unavailability of those rooms. The list goes on.
Our entire facilities plan, involving multi-million dollar projects, is driven by the district’s capacity numbers, but many of them do not accurately reflect how we can and will use our buildings. The district needs to develop a target enrollment number for each building that depends not just on the size of the building or the number of classrooms, but on a plan for how the rooms will actually be used and how the grades will (ideally) be distributed among them—a plan that tries to minimize the chance of outlier class sizes.