Facility Planning: Endless Search

Looking for the ideal class size.

When it was built in 1848, Boston's Quincy Grammar School, the first fully graded elementary school in the United States, had enough room to cram 55 students into each classroom. Over the years, as the era of regimented learning gave way to learning by doing, the number of students per classroom has declined, and the drive to lower student-teacher ratios continues today.

Many educators see smaller class sizes as the best way to create effective teaching and learning conditions, especially in the early grades.

Reducing class size to reach an ideal student-teacher ratio requires more staff and classrooms. Generally, additional classrooms are needed, unless programs are eliminated to free up classrooms. A review of 13 states with class-size-reduction initiatives found class sizes ranging from 14 to 24 students in K to 3, 17 to 29 students for grades 4 to 6, and 25 to 35 students per classroom for grades 7 to 12. Lack of space for classrooms has forced some schools to give up their science labs, libraries, and preschool and parenting-education classrooms.

Adding classrooms and employees increases a school's operations and maintenance costs. The majority of a school district's budget is spent on special programs, social services, salaries, support staff, health services, transportation and technology. According to one report, 70 to 80 percent of a district's operating budget goes to salaries and benefits. As salaries and health-insurance costs rise, including the number of employees outside the regular classroom, district spending increases. Small districts usually are the costliest because they must provide full services to a smaller number of children.

Attempts have been made over the years to decrease class sizes. Much of the focus now is on the primary and intermediate grades. Research indicates that class sizes in the range of 18 to 20 for grades K to 3 produce positive learning results for a student well into senior high school. Disadvantaged students are helped the most, according to research. Less emphasis is put on decreasing class sizes in secondary education because the expanded curriculum results in smaller class sizes; some advanced courses have sections varying in range from five to 20 students.

In 1999, the federal Class-Size Reduction Program was created to help improve student achievement by reducing K-3 class size to 18 students. One major obstacle to reducing class size was finding enough qualified teachers.

Each individual, whether preteen, teen or adult, possesses unique and different learning styles regardless of economic, sociologic or cultural backgrounds. Searching for the ideal class size must continue, as well as researching student achievement to justify the increased costs.

James E. Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

TAGS: Construction
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