High school classes swollen with 30-plus students; Administrators say reducing size is not priority at this time


Bonnie Book teaches high school chemistry, and she loves her kids. She only wishes there weren't quite so many of them.

Each morning, her classroom, No. 444 at Liberty High in Eldersburg, is clogged with 33 students. There isn't an empty desk in the room. On lab day recently -- time to measure the densities of honey, vegetable oil, dish detergent and vanilla extract -- there was a waiting list for space at the lab tables.

"How many people have not been in the lab?" Book asked as the 8: 35 bell rang. A dozen students raised their hands, and she promised to squeeze them in the next day.

In high schools across Maryland, classes of 30 or more students are common. In Carroll County last year, 377 high school classes had more than 30 students, and Harford County had 200 classes with more than 30. Both systems say class sizes this year are about the same.

Teachers facing such crowds complain of myriad problems. They can't call on every student who has a question. They can't keep students in the back of the room from dozing off. They spend hours grading papers.

And yet, while school administrators and principals say it's common sense that smaller classes are preferred, reducing class size at the high school level is not the first priority. Attracting quality teachers and getting funding to hire them are. In addition, the volumes of research into how class size affects student achievement have focused almost exclusively on elementary schools.

A Maryland task force studying class size is expected to recommend to the governor that first- and second-grade classes be reduced substantially in size. For secondary schools, the task force is only calling for the state to study the issue.

J. C. Parker, a high school social studies teacher in Wicomico County who served on the task force, said classes with more than 40 students are not unheard of in Maryland. And middle school classes in some counties, he added, are almost as big.

"You can't help 40 kids in an hour," said Parker. "It's impossible."

But he said it also would be impossible to persuade the General Assembly to pay to add thousands of teachers at all grade levels.

"The legislature would laugh us out of the room," Parker said. "There's no research, and there's no way to get it done overnight. So you start where you have the greatest impact, and that's grades one to three."

Discipline problems

For now, high school principals have little choice but to let some classes stay large. Even when funding is squeezed out for more staff, extra instructors are typically used to reduce the size of classes with lower achievers where, educators say, a lack of individual attention can be devastating for students. Most high schools cap the size of lower-achieving classes at 15 or 20, at the expense of other classes.

"You want all kids to be successful," said Gregory Eckles, director of secondary schools in Carroll County. "And if you've got kids who are skilled and ready to learn, we can let those class sizes get a bit higher."

Perhaps as high as 37.

That's how many students are in Mary Reed's Algebra I class at North Carroll High in Hampstead. Reed, a first-year teacher, said she never encountered classes so big when she was a student teacher.

With an ocean of occupied desks before her, she was doing all she could one recent afternoon to keep everyone focused on a word problem: "At what rate, in feet per second, is Rebecca climbing up a 500-foot cliff?"

Reed was engaging as they worked out a solution, but there was peripheral conversation in the back of the room. She finally assigned detention to one chatterer.

"The more students, the more problems you encounter -- discipline problems," she said.

Reed added that she can't always call parents of struggling students because she has too many calls to make. She said that when she divides students into groups, she just hopes they can help each other when she can't get to everybody.

"I won't always get to each student -- I try to," she said. "Hopefully, they can ask each other questions. Or I can help two at a time."

Ideal levels

Compounding the problem is that, in many suburban counties, a leap in enrollment that began about 1990 in the elementary schools is moving its way up in grade levels. In Carroll County, many elementary schools have fewer pupils this year, while enrollment in high schools is booming.

Liberty High -- in rapidly developing South Carroll -- has 82 new students this year. Principal Randy Clark is proud that, despite the increase, he has juggled his staff and pushed average class sizes down to 24.99 from 25.25 last year.

Clark said ideally he would want upper-level classes to contain 25 to 28 students, mid-level classes to contain no more than 20 students, and low-level classes to have a maximum of 15. The reality is that he does not have enough staff to do that, and students' scheduling demands often force him to create bigger classes. He has 110 classes this year with more than 30 students.

Chris L. Lesh teaches one of them -- an ecology class with 34 juniors and seniors -- and blames the crowding for putting her a month behind schedule compared with last year, because she must spend extra time helping slower learners before moving to a new unit. Last year, 22 students were in the class.

Even when principals receive complaints, little can be done once a school year begins.

At the elementary school level, quick fixes can be made. At Friendship Valley Elementary in Westminster, the year opened with 32 pupils in one of three first-grade math classes. (Two girls had to sit at a supply table covered with scissors and glue bottles.) Parents complained and, within weeks, a teacher was added to create a fourth class.

In high schools, it's not so easy. With far more classes scattered throughout the day, school administrators said, adding one teacher rarely helps much.

No room for more teachers

There are spotty efforts to reduce high school class size. Howard County this year spent $620,000 to hire 20 teachers in a targeted effort to make ninth-grade math and English classes smaller. It worked. Average class size in the math classes dropped from 25.4 to 19.3 students this year, and English from 24.1 to 18.5.

In Alabama, the state board of education has mandated that all high school classes contain 29 or fewer students, unless a waiver is granted by the state. Assistant State Superintendent Robert L. Morton said the board did not need hard research to be convinced.

"Their feeling -- and it may just be a feeling -- is that the smaller the class, the better the instruction," Morton said.

Anne Arundel County has a class-size reduction plan that covers all grade levels. But according to Nancy Mann, assistant superintendent for instruction, high schools will not see relief for years because the current focus is first grade. The county did not report average class sizes last year, but Mann said the numbers are similar to those in other area schools.

Other priorities

For the most part, school systems say they have no initiatives in place. In Baltimore City, the average high school class contains about 30 students. In Baltimore County, that average is 26.6. Officials in both systems said they do not have plans to drive the numbers down.

Many educators say the evidence is much clearer that improving teaching has an impact on achievement. And, at least in Maryland, many principals say they don't have the classroom space for more teachers, even if they got them.

During class recently, Book, the chemistry teacher, was more traffic cop than instructor, directing groups of students from the lab tables to their desks, to work on a review sheet until a lab table opened again.

"The people who just sat down -- that would be group eight," Book said, speaking to a group of three students. "Whenever I get a chance, I'll put you back in the lab."

Contributing writer Sarah Allen provided information for this article.

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