Amy Van Zile stood in front of the Payson Unified School Board at a recent meeting and asked why her daughter’s fifth grade classroom had so many students.
“Most of the fifth grade classes are running at 33 or 34 kids per classroom,” she said, “It seems to be a disservice to the teacher. I know it is a goal of the board to lower class sizes and that does not seem to be happening and I would ask that that is addressed.”
The class size issue has also affected Payson High School (PHS), which no longer offers calculus because only half a dozen students wanted to take the advance math class vital to most science and technical careers. Most of the math classes are packed with 30 to 42 students, while some marketing classes have just seven.
Last year, Superintendent Ron Hitchcock presented a staffing and class size model that featured far fewer students than most classes now have. Moreover, class sizes in the elementary grade took a huge jump two years ago when the district closed Frontier Elementary School and lost a third of its elementary grade classrooms.
Hitchcock’s Prototype Schools model based on research on student achievement called for class size averages of 20 at Payson Elementary School (PES) and 24 at Julia Randall Elementary (JRE). The model also calls for average class sizes of 21 at the middle school and 21 at Payson High School.
In reality, teachers are struggling with much larger classes at every grade level.
A few besides Van Zile have wondered about the class sizes in the district, including Theresa Lammers, a resource teacher at Payson Elementary School.
“I’m just trying to figure out where you’re getting your SPED numbers. Where do your numbers for the 16-to-one (teacher to special education student) ratio come from? Why do we have a caseload of 20 to 25?” she asked at a recent meeting after the administrators presented school scores.
Hitchcock said he calculated the 16-to-one special education class ratio by taking the 412 students with an individual education program (IEP) and dividing it by the 25 special education teachers in the district.
That is where Theresa had issue.
“We can’t figure out where the 25 teachers are,” she said.
The explanation for the big classes despite the lower teacher-student ratio on average may stem from the number of teachers not actually in the classroom.
For instance, the district this year removed from the classroom four “student achievement” teachers to track scores and train other teachers. District Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case said these student achievement teachers will help classroom teachers once they get their feet wet.
District Technology Director Joni de Szendeffy responded to a request from the Roundup by collating actual enrollment by school this year.
The figures show that at PES the average classroom has 24 students, compared to the goal of 20. Designed originally to house 540 students, the campus now has 543.
At JRE, average class sizes run from 26 in third grade to a high of 32 in fifth grade. The goal is to have classes at 24 students each. JRE can hold 720 students and currently has 563.
At the middle school, some classes have just 11 students, including girls P.E. Other classes have 36 students such as in language arts. The staffing model calls for class sizes averaging 22 students. Currently, classes average 24. The school has a capacity of 792 and currently instructs 547.
Payson High School has a capacity for 1,082 students and currently has 751. Most classes have 30 or more students, but the average comes out at 23 thanks to some very small special education and elective classes.
In response to Van Zile’s comment on large class sizes, board member Jim Quinlan responded by reading from an Arizona Republic article that reported four Arizona schools made the top 30 in the United States, according to a student in U.S. News and World Report which looked at reading and math proficiency. All those top schools had small class sizes, he said.
“When you have small classes with eager teachers you get results,” he said, “I’m for getting class sizes down to smaller sizes because the best schools have small class sizes.”