Four years ago, there were 18 kindergarten students in Georgia’s public school classrooms.
Students would learn better, Gov. Sonny Perdue said when lower class size legislation was passed in 2006.
But today, that law has faded. It’s another sign of the economy that went south, leaving school systems to add students to classrooms to cut down the number of teachers they need to pay.
Mandy Curlee will drop her son off at Taylor Elementary in Macon this August, where he will be in a kindergarten classroom of 25.
“I think it will have an impact but I don’t know how much of an impact,” she said. “The way the economy has gone, it’s impacting more than we thought it was going to.”
Like other parents, she hopes her son continues to get one-on-one teacher attention and that student behavior problems won’t be an issue.
Last month, the State Board of Education exempted school systems for the 2010-11 school year from complying with the lower class size legislation in light of the continued economic downturn that has caused state and local revenue declines.
It’s now up to school systems to set their own class sizes.
School systems vote during their local board meetings to increase their class sizes and submit a board resolution to the state.
Most Middle Georgia school systems will use the flexibility, such as Bibb County schools, where 28 teaching positions and eight paraprofessionals in grades K-3 were eliminated to save $2.16 million in the system’s budget. Class sizes in those grades will grow.
Bibb’s kindergarten rooms will now have three more students each this fall. First- through third-grade classrooms will add two more students per room so that each class has up to 25 students.
“There are many factors that influence student achievement in the classroom,” said Cathy Magouyrk, Bibb’s deputy superintendent of teaching and learning. “Our teachers will continue to work to provide the best instruction for every student.”
Most kindergarten rooms will have a teacher and paraprofessional, she said. Middle and high schools were not targeted for increased class sizes because it would be too overwhelming for teachers, who have hundreds of students because those students switch classes.
She said the larger classrooms are actually no larger then they were in 2000.
State Board of Education Chair Wanda Barrs said “increasing class size is never ideal, but a slight increase will allow systems to significantly conserve resources while managing through these difficult times.”
Georgia’s public schools have reached an economic crisis.
Years of state cuts that cumulatively total about $2 billion, coupled with an ancient funding formula the state uses to fund school systems to pay their teachers and to educate their students “shorts” local systems $1 billion each year, said Tim Callahan, Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
“Then the current economic crisis hit — depleting their reserve funds and raising local millage rates,” he said. “The national and state economic crisis was just the third element in the perfect storm that has come together to really begin to cripple the state’s schools.
“Our sincere hope is that systems hold the line on increasing class sizes as much as they can. Obviously, the larger the class the less individual attention a student can get from the teacher, and larger class sizes present discipline and management issues that are proportionately larger,” he added.
This past school year, school systems used these class size limits: 20 students in kindergarten or 22 with a teacher and paraprofessional; 23 students in grades 1-3; 30 in grades 4-8; and 32 in core subjects for grades 9-12.
Jones and Monroe County superintendents want to stick to that same model this fall, but say if they have one or two extra students show up they’ll increase their classes rather than hire a teacher.
“Our plan is not to exceed that and hopefully be slightly under, but late enrollment could affect that,” said Jones County schools interim Superintendent William Mathews. “We’re asking for flexibility across (grade levels) as a safety precaution.”
Monroe County schools Superintendent Anthony Pack said the school system did not eliminate teaching positions in order to increase some classrooms and will try not to allow more than two additional students over the prior year’s limits.
“The board and I will strive to maintain reasonable numbers of students in classes so teachers can teach and students can learn,” he said.
Meanwhile, classrooms in Houston County will see some increases from the 2009-10 school year, but will still remain at or below the state maximums in place at that time, said Superintendent Robin Hines.
In core subjects at the high school level, the ratio will increase from 24 students per teacher to 26 students per teacher.
At other grade levels, there will be 20 students per kindergarten classroom, 21 in grades 1-3 and 28 in grades 4-8.
While having quality teachers in the school system is critical to classroom success, maintaining small class sizes helps those teachers work more effectively, Hines said.
“If class sizes weren’t a big deal, we wouldn’t have limits. We want to make sure they’re as small as possible within our budget constraints,” he said.
While no plans to do so have been finalized, the Houston County Board of Education may consider a resolution to increase the class size for Advanced Placement courses from 23 students to 28 at a future meeting if needed, Hines said.
Doing so could help address limitations for students interested in taking AP courses.
Allowing more students to enroll in AP courses may also have a ripple effect on class sizes across the board, he said.
“Budgets affect AP,” Hines said. “It affects every area of the organization.”
Pulaski County school officials are also considering passing a resolution to increase class sizes at a rate of one to three students per class, but no final decision will be made until its school board meeting Tuesday, said Superintendent Janis Sparrow.
Budget cuts forced the system to eliminate almost 20 positions, saving about $600,000, Sparrow said. Of that number, five were laid off and the rest were cut through attrition or moved to federal funds.
Even so, Pulaski County already maintains a low teacher to student ratio.
Systemwide, there is one teacher for every 19 students in Pulaski County, according to Sparrow’s estimates of academic and career technical courses. From the kindergarten to the fifth grade, the ratio is lower, with 18 students per teacher. At the middle school level, there is one teacher per 22 students, and in high school, there is one teacher for every 19 students.
Because Pulaski County has a small student population — 1,550 systemwide — the teacher to student ratio ends up being lower in relation to the number of teachers required to offer students all necessary courses. The system also uses federal Title I funds to hire some teachers to keep that ratio low, Sparrow said.
“Our whole point in being here is student achievement and academics,” Sparrow said. “If we feel the class is too full, it reduces individual attention teachers can give. The class setting is more difficult to handle.”
Peach County will keep its class sizes for the upcoming school year the same as the previous year, which were as large as state limits would allow, according to Superintendent Susan Clark.
Based on her own experience of teaching a high school class of 42 students, maintaining a lower class size helps the teacher better address the needs of the lowest achieving and highest achieving students within the same group.
“Having that smaller class size allows them to differentiate instruction and target instruction to needs of kids without having to worry so much about management problems,” she said. “It’s easier to get to 30 kids than 40 kids.”
Clark said the savings of going to a four-day school week during the 2009-10 year — around $400,000 — allowed the system to maintain current class sizes. However, she also feels local school systems have been stretched to their limits by state budget cuts.
“There is a point in time when there’s an end to the money,” she said. “The needs outweigh what you have. Some school districts are already there. We’re certainly there. There’s nothing else for us to do that makes sense for the children.”