Loudoun elementary schools may have an average of 22 students to a class, but this year's actual classroom size ranges from as few as eight children in a room to as many as 28.
"That literally is the range, even starting out," said Sharon Ackerman, assistant superintendent for instruction.
Project STAR, a national report on classroom size, established that smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade produced substantial improvement in early learning. The effect on achievement among minority children nearly doubled. Student skills at the economically poorest schools rose from well below average to above average in reading and mathematics. The students' progress continued after returning to average-size classrooms.
Ackerman said the STAR research showed improvement only when the classes had 15 students. "Somewhere between 18 and 25, they could not find a real impact on student achievement," she said. "What is less easy to measure is how does the smaller class size allow the teacher to get to know the students and their parents on a personal level.
"Any teacher will tell you it feels better to have a smaller number of students, because you can give more attention to each student. I think that's equally important."
She said research supports that opinion.
MEETING THE OPTIMUM size of 15, however, would be costly. Loudoun would need to hire additional teachers and build more classrooms, she said. Ackerman provides the School Board with estimates on classroom size reductions, but not as low as 15, she said.
She provided reasons for the disparity in classroom size after reviewing enrollment figures from the first week of school, which started Sept. 7. She declined to make the enrollment numbers public, because they are expected to change by the end of the month. They said the Sept. 30 tally would more accurately reflect the school's projection of 44,715 students for the 2004-2005 school year.
The School Board has set the average elementary classroom size at 22, the middle school at 21, and the high school at 26.1. The board lowered the middle school average from 22 to 21 and the high school average from 26.6 to 26.1 this year. Chairman John Andrews (Potomac) and member Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) voted against the budget, because they wanted to reduce the high school class size even further.
Andrews said keeping the class size closer to the averages set by the board would allow the teachers to provide more individual instruction. "When you start getting up to 28, especially with the younger children, that's a lot of children to manage," he said.
Ohneiser expressed frustration with the disparity. "I think it's a losing argument, because the only small classroom sizes are in the rural parts of the county," he said.
Ackerman said schools in the western, rural region of the county are likely to have lower numbers than the eastern, urban side. The Middleburg Elementary School has a class size of eight this fall. Last year, the school had one class with eight students and another with nine, according to a chart entitled, "Elementary Class Sizes, December 8, 2003." Emerick Elementary School in Purceville had two classes of six students and one of seven.
Ackerman said some of the older schools are small and only have one class per grade. "The second grade or third grade students in those attendance areas don't come in nice neat packs of 20," she said.
Andrews said a number of factors contribute to student achievement, but the small class sizes in the west has made a difference. "If you look at Aldie, they always have some of the top test scores," he said. "It's a small group of children who are getting more of a direct education."
School Board member Priscilla Godfrey (Blue Ridge) countered that environment, home life, and support or non-support from parents also enter into the equation.
School Board member Warren Geurin (Sterling) said the issue is not east versus west in regard to class size. "If we are to maintain neighborhood schools, especially in the rural, less densely populated areas, we will probably always have lower class sizes in those schools."
OHNEISER COMPLAINED that the county's resources are not evenly distributed. Schools in his district have a high number of students in the classroom. "The rural parts of the county have a private school environment, given the ratio of students to teachers," he said.
Loudoun needs to continue building new schools to prevent overcrowding, he said. "They are on the edge now."
He said he fears classroom sizes in Ashburn will reach as high as 33, harming the quality of education.
Ackerman said the school district combines two classes when one grade is in the single digits and the next grade has 17 to 19 students. "We do it … to be close to being equitable in staffing across the county. We have some large schools using combination classes for the same reason," she said.
Last year, three of the 41 elementary schools had combination classes: Middleburg, Mill Run and Waterford. A combined class of second and third graders, for example, made up a classroom size of 29 students in Waterford.
Godfrey said she has seen the benefits of using combination classes, because her children attended Middleburg Elementary School. A combined class provides an opportunity for a second grader who has the ability to do third grade math, and remediation for a third grader who writes at a second grade level.
LAST YEAR, many elementary schools had class sizes exceeding 22 without combining classes. On the other hand, there were 12 students per class in Aldie and Lucketts elementary schools, 13 in Rolling Ridge in Sterling, and 15 in Guilford Elementary School in Sterling, and none of them were combined with other grades. The latter two are in eastern Loudoun.
She said the School Board will reset the boundaries to route more students to certain schools to ensure class sizes are closer to the average. The board would not make changes, though, if it resulted in children having to ride the bus for more than an hour, she said.
Ackerman provided another reason for the disparity in classroom sizes. The school district purposely limits the number of students in a class when it has children who are not proficient in English, who qualify for free or reduced lunch or who receive special education services, she said.
Geurin said five Sterling Park schools and two Sugarland Run schools fall in this category. "Despite opposition from some, our budget has provided for increased numbers of teachers so that we could lower class sizes at Rolling Ridge, Sterling, Forest Grove, Guilford, Sully, Sugarland and Meadowland elementary schools." The latter two are in the Sugarland section of Sterling. The others are in Sterling Park.
He said he is grateful that the School Board has recognized the problems associated with having a large percentage of children whom are not proficient in speaking English. Those seven elementary schools have the highest number of English as a Second Language students in the school system.
"Just as one size does not fit all, not every school has a student population that comes to school with the same preparation. When a school classroom has an overwhelming number of children who do not speak English as a native language … our teachers face different challenges than teachers do in some of our wealthier, better educated neighboring communities," he said.
Ackerman said students with limited proficiency in English require extra help beyond the two or three years they are enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. "We know it takes seven years to become proficient in a language," she said. "We don't carry them in the ESL program for the full seven years, but they need additional monitoring."
Thomas Reed, vice-chairman of the School Board, said the board is committed to not just closing — but eliminating — the achievement gap between disadvantaged and other students.
Ohneiser said providing smaller classroom sizes for these students is a good approach within limits. "Again, the limit is based on 'It's OK to provide an extra benefit in one place as long as it doesn't affect another.' Otherwise you are hurting one child to help another," he said.
ACKERMAN ATTRIBUTED a number of the larger class sizes to neighborhoods that have outgrown their schools. "We run out of space. Routinely, you'll see an increase in class size just before a new school opens," she said. "Logic says you need to relieve one of the schools.
"We're not going to be able to keep one or more schools in an area at this comfortable 22 average unless we open a new school."
Ohneiser cited the student populations at Broad Run and Stone Bridge high schools in Ashburn as examples of buildings that already are beyond capacity.
The Dec. 8 data shows Cedar Lane Elementary School in Ashburn had a class with 27 students last year. Mill Run Elementary School in Ashburn had 13 combination classes with 25 students in each. It also had four classes of 25 students that did not represent a combination of two grades.
Belmont Ridge Elementary School opened this fall to alleviate overcrowding at Cedar Lane.
Mercer Middle School in Aldie and Smart's Mill Middle School in Leesburg also opened this fall, bringing to 23 the total number of new schools in the past five years. Another 16 schools are planned in the next six years.
Ackerman said middle and high school classroom sizes also vary, but the range is more likely to exceed 28. "If the average is 26.1, you're going to have a class of 30, which we all agree is too high," she said.
It's difficult to "define" actual class sizes in middle and high schools, she said. An Advanced Placement Course, for example, might have few or many students, depending on the number interested in taking the class for college credit.
Reducing the class size average, particularly in high school, gives principals the flexibility to offer as many courses as possible, she said.
"The principals in the secondary schools have to decide how they want to deploy the resources," she said. "It's not as clean as elementary schools."