Come fall 2009, public school classrooms may look remarkably different, especially in kindergarten through third grade. Word among administrators throughout the country has it that state budget cuts will cause those class sizes to balloon from 20 students, the maximum allowed presently, to a new headcount of 25 or 30 in some states. And, yes, you’ve done the math correctly: That’s a 25% increase in students per class.

Larger classes can mean less teacher time

Teachers nationwide are lamenting the likely change. And with good reason: Increased class sizes not only bring swelling mounds of paperwork, such as homework to grade, but also less physical space per child in already tight classrooms. Most importantly, larger class sizes also mean less time with the teacher for each student. “This is bound to bring more difficulty to an already difficult job,” says Wellford Wilms, a UCLA professor of education. A third grade public school teacher in Los Angeles concurs. “In my experience, if I even get two extra students in my class, and we move from 20 to 22 students, that makes a difference,” she says, explaining why. “Every child is a complex person. And by adding more children to each classroom you’re creating an even more complex situation. With that many children, a teacher’s ability to meet students’ needs gets impacted.”

Research proves what parents already assumed: Smaller classes are better environments for learning. In the 2006 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report, “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” 75% of surveyed drop-out high school students stated that smaller class sizes with more individualized instruction might have helped them stay in school.

A landmark U.S. Department of Education study, “Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know?” found that class reduction in the early grades lead to higher student achievement, especially “when class size is reduced to a point somewhere between 15 and 20 students.” The positive effects on achievement, the study suggested, “continue to increase as class size approaches a situation of a 1-1 tutorial.”

Larger classes can work given the right teacher

Not every educator sees the shifting class sizes as a negative. “If a teacher struggles with organization, he is going to have a difficult time no matter how many students are in his class,” says the principal of a top-ranking Los Angeles elementary school. “But if a teacher is organized, and has her management systems in place, and if she’s communicated her expectations and consequences to her students, then the situation does not have to spin out of control.”

How to make the most of a large class

While more kids per class may not be an ideal situation, you can take steps to ensure that your child — and his or her schoolmates — keep learning successfully. Set up a brief, 15-minute conference with your child’s teacher. Express your concerns about the new class configuration, get her perspective, and ask how you can help. Here are a few helpful pointers and some ways to improve the situation:

  • Inform your teacher about your child’s life. Has your child experienced any family-dynamic changes, such as divorce or death of a loved one? Has a best friend moved away? Let your teacher know. For academics, discuss your child’s weak points — and her strong ones too. “It may sound obvious but I cannot stress this enough,” says a third grade teacher. “It’s really important for parents to share what they know about their child with the teacher. Every bit of information helps.” Some teachers solicit this information in the form of a beginning-of the-year survey. But even if your teacher hasn’t, she would probably appreciate the insight. Tell the teacher what has been a struggle for your child. It could be memorization, building a love of reading, following the rules on the yard or making new friends. Don’t forget to offer up the wonderful things your child is passionate about, whether that be collecting bugs or building dioramas. “It takes us a while to uncover these things in 20 children and it will take longer in 25,” says an elementary school educator. “Parents can really jumpstart this understanding.”
  • Find out the grade-level requirements. What are the essential things your child will need to learn in order to be successful? In kindergarten, for example, a child focuses on learning the alphabet and the sound each letter makes. Pick up grade-appropriate workbooks and flashcards so you can practice together at home. “Simply asking your teacher, ‘How can I support my kid?’ will put your child ahead of the game,” says UCLA’s Wilms.
  •  Be proactive in determining where your child sits in the class. Make sure he is sitting where he can see the board, especially if he has any vision or hearing impairment. What’s more, ask that he be seated next to a student who complements — not battles — his own temperament. “I placed one student who has a lot of siblings next to another student who’s an organizational mess,” says an elementary teacher. “The organized one helps the disorganized one, and they’ve struck up a great collaborative friendship because of that.”
  • Make sure your child follows the rules. “Teach your child to respect authority,” says an elementary school principal. “And that means listening to both your and the teacher’s decisions.” Be sure to implement a clear system of rules, consequences and responsibilities at home. A child with a system in place will respond more appropriately at school. Says the principal, “Kids raised with structure will think, ‘At home, I listen to my parents. I can also do that at school.” For teachers, less time spent disciplining children means more time and energy for instruction.
  • Volunteer. If you have an area of expertise, you can offer to nurture an accelerated group of students in your specialty. Working with more students on a daily basis, teachers will have less time to challenge accelerated students. Offer to read with the advanced students, or work with a group that excels in mathematics. And while you’re in the classroom, be sure to hand out healthy praise. “Children need attention and care,” says the elementary school principal. “A comment such as, ‘Your penmanship is wonderful,’ or, ‘That looks great!’ does wonders. A little pat on the back will make such a difference in a child’s day.”
  •  Offer to prepare a weekly class brief for parents. Or organize a rotating group of moms and dads to work with the teacher to outline the upcoming week’s schoolwork. Some teachers may do this already but might appreciate your help. The brief should include core topics — i.e., continents, Martin Luther King, Jr., and counting by 10s — and the teacher’s suggestions on integrating learning with fun at home.
  • Stay positive, consistent and involved. More students per class may not be an ideal situation. But it doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom either.
  • You can help by arriving at school a few minutes early, volunteering on a regular basis and bringing a prepared child to school.

“What always worked will continue to work,” says the elementary school principal, who offers some valuable advice: “Good parenting makes for good teaching. Give your children your time and attention at home. Give them opportunities to practice what they learn at school. Read together and play together. If a child is unhappy, teaching him is an uphill battle. But if they come to us happy and content, we can do a lot with them — and that’s no matter what their class size is.”

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