Superintendent Graden talks to Saline Board of Education About Class Size

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 11/08/2019 - 03:12

Those hoping that this month's Saline Area Schools Board of Education discussion on creeping class sizes would involve a full-throated call for hiring more teachers to thin out K-6 classrooms might have to wait a bit longer.

The discussion did entail Superintendent Scot Graden alluding to some financial details, such as a $150,000 one-time expense on the 2019-2020 books not being present the following fiscal year, followed by Graden referring to that expense gap as "effectively two teachers in a sense" during the forward-looking portion of his presentation on the topic.

The rest of his presentation was effectively a deep dive into the topic, which a steady stream of vocal parents have been calling attention to during public comment periods over the past several months.

In order to understand the "creep" of class sizes over the past couple of years, one must understand the historical context of how the district has handled the issue.

In 2013 the Saline Education Association had established class size maximums and 12 percent overage thresholds, past which the district was contractually obligated to devise a "plan for remedy" to meet the terms of the contract.

The maximums were much higher in the 2013 agreement: 25 students for kindergarten, 27 students for first-grade classes, and 30 students for second through sixth-grade classes.

In 2016 a Class Size Taskforce consisting of 20 parents, teachers, and administrators reviewed class sizes at the time and investigated the academic, social, and emotional impact of class sizes on students.

The task force set kindergarten maximum size at 20=-22, first-grade class size at 22-24, second and third grade-class size at 24-26, fourth and fifth-grade class size at 26-28, and sixth-grade class size at 28-30.

Currently the average kindergarten class size is 23.1, first grade class size is 23.4, second-grade class size is 27.6, third-grade class size is 27.5, fourth-grade class size is 28.7, fifth-grade class size is 29.7, and sixth-grade class size is 30.4.

Graden explained that he doesn't view the issue as "is this a number of is it not a number." For him, it depends on a number of factors including the instructional setting, the curriculum, the teacher, the classroom, and the building configuration.

Of particular note are the third-grade classes in Saline schools. Third-grade classes are offered across three school buildings: Harvest, Pleasant Ridge, and Woodland Meadows. Currently third-grade class sizes are Harvest are 23 or 24, while the third grade classes at Pleasant Ridge are all 30 and at Woodland they're all 30 with the exception of one 29 student class.

While two of the elementary school buildings have 120 third grade students and one has 119 students, Harvest has five sections of third grade to four at Pleasant Ridge and Woodland Meadows.

Graden said one way to stabilize third-grade class sizes across the district would be to go to grade band buildings, where each building handles all students of specific grades from all across the district. This would average our third grade class sizes to 26 or 27 students across the board.

Several Board of Education members expressed a lack of desire for such a configuration, and Graden said he believed it would incur too much of a cost on the students across the entire K-6 student body.

"We've made a decision as an organization, as a community, and certainly as a board and administration to say that we certainly don't feel that grade band buildings are the answer," Graden said, adding that forcing students through so many building transitions would be detrimental.

There was also concern from a transportation perspective around forcing all third graders from across the entire geographic expanse of the school district all into one building, as opposed to the current model of having neighborhood schools located throughout the district giving younger students a school closer to home in which they spend more time establishing themselves academically and socially before making the first major building transition to middle school.

The 2016 task force concluded this wasn't the answer then and Graden said he continues to believe this is not the answer now.

Another thing to consider is what some of the research that the task force considered said about class sizes. In younger classrooms, approaching 29 students is where a district starts to see a detrimental impact to students academically and emotionally. 

None of the maximums are at or above the 29 student threshold; in fact, 20 of the 57 K-3 classrooms are within their maximum range and all are only one or two students outside of the range. None are three or more students outside of the range.

Graden acknowledged one of the factors in the increases to class sizes was attrition of teaching staff from a severance offered to veteran teaching staff to entice them into retirement to make way for newer teachers who would be starting on the lower end of a more cost-effective pay and benefits scale.

"We have less certified teachers on staff this year than we did last year," Graden said. "As you know relative to our current budget situation that was a decision we made as a board, as a community, and as an administration to say we want to make sure we're balancing this effectively."

Going forward the district will be taking a "straight-line move up" view of the student population and trying to anticipate class sizes based on the classes that are feeding into them from previous years, while keeping an eye on the student population from all angles: new students entering into the Young Fives and kindergarten programs, new students moving to the district, and School of Choice enrollment.

One idiosyncrasy of Saline Area Schools flow of students through the system is that there are typically around 30 more students enrolling in ninth grade at Saline High School than there were students in the eighth-grade classes that feed into that grade tier from the final grades at Saline Middle School.

"We know that there are families that move into our community for ninth grade, families who are in our community but have chosen other options for K-8 show up and enroll as ninth-graders," Graden explained. "That's the kind of thing we need to anticipate."

Some indicators, such as kindergarten enrollment, which has historically been a sound way to estimate kindergarten enrollment, has become less effective over time, Graden said. 

"It used to be, if you had a number at kindergarten round-up, you could look at that number and it would tell you historically roughly where you were going to be at the start of the school ... but because enrollment is much more fluid, it's more of a rolling scenario now," Graden said.

Another consideration is Michigan's the lower birthrates. Expanding teaching staff to gird the district for a larger student body seems like the answer until you realize that there just aren't as many young families having children in Michigan these days.

"There's just not that influx of young families who are looking to come to a northern climate despite the economic boom of the Ann Arbor region," Graden said.

The advantage of this circumstance is that Saline schools currently exist in an equilibrium where the district isn't looking at closing schools or building new schools, which has allowed the focus to be on instruction, according to Graden.

"Our focus right now is on what the students are doing," he said.

Currently, the district is down 82 students between 2018 and 2019, with 44 heads are down at the high school alone. Woodland Meadows and Harvest are both down five percent across the board. 

The top priority is identifying students who need support and responding with targeted intervention to address any academic, behavioral, or emotional deficits that may be present. 

In particular, the Leader in Me program at Woodland Meadows, the Social Thinking paradigm at Harvest, and the Social Emotional Learning focus at Pleasant Ridge are hoped to function as an institutional bulwark against what may be stymying Saline students, whether it's caused by class sizes or some other factor.

On the flip side of that coin, Graden says that he has instructed his building principals to be cognizant of teachers who are struggling with outsized challenges from class.

There is also more emphasis on PBIS or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports which is focused more on responding to misbehavior with learning and positive behavior with rewards than meting out punishment.

Graden said that more classes will be moving towards a workshop model where groups are organized within each class according to student ability. In particular, this model will be moving heavily into mathematical instruction in the coming years with the intention of not leaving any students behind in terms of their growth.

Saline has also been adding instructional design staff positions over recent years which are intended to provide support to teachers who need assistance with a range of challenges such as technology support, classroom management, assistance with parent communication, or curriculum guidance. The expectation is that teachers with more students will need more support from design staff.

Graden said that the district will continue to address this topic, particularly as the 2020-2021 budget comes into focus.

He said that the fact that the district budgeted for a $175 per pupil foundation allowance increase but received a $238 increase will provide breathing room to consider adding staff if that is decided to be the best course of action for Saline students.

That increase brings the per pupil funding level per Saline student to $8,133 which will be the base funding level for 2010-2021. Graden said he doesn't expect a decrease from that funding level next fiscal year.

The good news is that Graden believes that solid strategies can be formulated to deal with the issue of class size going forward. It's just a matter of seeing how all of these variables move over the next year or so and making some determinations in the future.

Sean Dalton's picture
Sean Dalton
Sean Dalton is a veteran of the Washtenaw County journalism scene. He co-founded and and also worked for Heritage Newspapers.