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What's So Great About Small Class Sizes?

A few years ago, I had lunch with a former colleague who is in her last year of teaching 6th grade math and science at a public middle school in a Eugene, Oregon district. As we sat on that summer afternoon, talking about teaching challenges in the 2010’s in Oregon public schools, I felt the need to ask her what her smallest class size was during the year she had just completed. Her initial reaction was, “You don’t want to know.” I really did and so immediately responded with “Yes I do.” She shared that her “smallest” class of 11 and 12-year olds the previous school year was one with 43 students.

I also worked with a woman who taught Pre-algebra to seventh graders in another Eugene public middle school. In one of her last classes before retirement, less than five years ago, she had 45 students. These were the school’s strongest seventh grade math students, yet they were packed into a classroom where individual attention from the instructor was nearly impossible.

In Albany schools—and likely many other elementary schools around the state—it is not uncommon to find first and second grade classrooms with more than 30 students. What happens to that seven-year old who needs one-on-one time with his/her teacher when math concepts simply don’t make sense?

One of the greater challenges public education in Oregon faces in 2018 is increasing class sizes. When assigned a classroom with too many students to serve them effectively, most teachers default to worksheets, direct instruction, or bookwork for kids. While those instructional strategies have their place, what is missing in a student’s experience is meaningful contact with his or her teacher.

I am not here to criticize public education. They do the best they can with the conditions they are dealt. However, if you can imagine your early elementary student sprawled on the floor of her classroom while her teacher kneels next to her, helping her move beyond phonetic spelling, or working with base ten blocks to understand number relationships more intuitively, there is a good chance it is not a public school classroom you’re envisioning.

Most private schools have the expectation from parents of classrooms with 15-20 students. And even if there are multiple grades in one room, the teacher in that classroom has enormous flexibility to serve individual student needs. When we pair a highly qualified teacher with a classroom student count capped at 15-18, that is when exceptional instruction and learning take place. That is when teachers have opportunities to inspire students; and that is when students are able to move well beyond what a textbook encourages them to learn.

At Central Valley Christian School, we are a lot like other private schools. We have opportunities to serve our students that large classes simply cannot duplicate. If you can imagine your child in a classroom where she gets exactly the teacher attention she needs for precisely the learning she needs, talk to us about enrolling for next school year. Rather than something resembling crowd management, that classroom with a smaller number of students may end up being one of the most important decisions you ever make for your child’s future.