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Class Sizes Grab Boards' Attention

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thurs., Aug. 28, 1997; Page V01

When Lyles-Crouch Elementary School's third-grade class size jumped from 18 to 23 pupils last year, unnerved parents could not find anyone who cared enough to do anything about it. The principal seemed helpless. The Alexandria school superintendent declined to assign an extra teacher.

The most memorable reaction, the parents recalled, came from a School Board member who, while responding to their worries, told them that there were 35 in her grade school class and she turned out fine.

Rarely in the annals of the Alexandria schools has an off-hand remark burned with such sustained brightness. The frustrations of the Lyles-Crouch parents led two of them to launch successful campaigns last spring for School Board seats, and now Alexandria is thinking more seriously about class size than it has in a long time.

The same is true for school districts throughout Northern Virginia and across the country. Educators and policymakers are beginning to look carefully at research that shows that reducing class size in the first four grades to 17 pupils or fewer has a marked impact on learning.

Many School Board members are aware of the research but are not certain where to find the money for extra teachers and space. In rapidly growing districts, such as those of Prince William and Loudoun counties, there is hardly enough money for classrooms to house the influx of new students, much less build extra rooms to reduce elementary school class sizes.

"The number one thing you can do to positively impact academic achievement is lower class size," said Prince William School Board member Steven Keen (Woodbridge). "It is not that we don't believe in it, and if we had an unlimited amount of money, it would be something we would do."

A proposal before the Alexandria School Board would reduce the size of lower-grade classes in the schools with the poorest children to as few as 15 pupils and would try to ensure that no kindergarten or first-, second- or third-grade class had more than 19 pupils.

Many school districts, particularly urban districts with growing immigrant populations, consider themselves lucky if they can keep class sizes below 30. According to a sample survey of teachers conducted for the National Education Association, the average elementary school class size in 1996 was 24.

After years of dismissing the importance of class size, education researchers have begun to experience a significant change of heart, based on landmark studies in Tennessee, Nevada, Wisconsin and Fairfax County. The research shows that reducing the number of children in kindergarten through third-grade classes significantly below 20 can improve learning, with the best results showing up among the poorest students. Class-size reductions in middle and high schools appear to have much less effect.

"Class size is not the be-all or end-all," said Mark R. Eaton, a lawyer and one of the Lyles-Crouch parents elected to a seat on the Alexandria board, "but it can be one of the most significant variables. If you have 30 strong kids, maybe you don't need small classes, but once you get past that human element, class size can be important."

The Virginia legislature acknowledged the impact of small classes in the lower grades several years ago by agreeing to subsidize classes in kindergarten to third grade (K-3) that maintain limits of 15, 18 or 20 students. About 130 elementary schools in Northern Virginia qualify for a share of the $56.7 million in annual grants, which can go to schools with as few as 16 percent of their students in free and reduced-price lunch programs.

But there is not enough money to cut class sizes everywhere to 17 or less, where the research shows each child's chance of learning to read is significantly increased.

Gloria McDonell, director of elementary instruction and administrative services for the Fairfax County schools, conducted a much-cited study of 31 Fairfax elementary schools that began in 1992. She reduced the average size of first-grade classes in those schools from 22 to 15.

The students were some of the neediest in the county. Their second-grade records showed that those who had been in the smaller classes the year before had a 75 percent passing rate, compared with 54 percent for students who were not in the program.

This echoed the results of the best-known recent test of class sizes, Tennessee's four-year, $3 million Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio project, known as Project STAR. It showed that classes of 17 or fewer students improved learning and that poor, inner-city children recorded the greatest gains. The Tennessee researchers followed those students as far as the ninth grade and found the gains only slightly diminished.

Sally Ann Baynard, the other Lyles-Crouch parent elected to the Alexandria School Board, is a Georgetown University political scientist who focused exclusively on elections abroad until she entered the School Board race at the last minute this year. She distributed data from the STAR study and other reports to the board, which discussed the class size issue July 24.

School Board Vice Chairman Henry S. Brooks said the board has been struggling with class size for years and managed to reduce what was an average elementary school class size of 28 pupils to 23. But with enrollments growing again and space in short supply, it is harder than ever to make progress, he said.

Baynard suggested setting different class-size targets depending on the number of poor children in each school. By rounding off the percentage of free-lunch pupils to the nearest 10 percent, she divided the city's 12 elementary schools into five groups.

The poorest school was Mount Vernon, with 70 percent eligible for free lunches. Jefferson-Houston, Lyles-Crouch, Mason, Ramsey and Maury each had about 60 percent; Kelly and Henry had 50 percent; Barrett, Adams and Polk had 40 percent; and MacArthur, the school with the most affluent parents, had 30 percent.

She proposed reducing K-3 class sizes at Mount Vernon to about 15, at the 60 percent free-lunch schools to 16, at the 50 percent schools to 17, at the 40 percent schools to 18 and at MacArthur to 19. "Small elementary classes benefit all students, but the research shows clearly that the greatest benefit is to our children who are at risk academically because of poverty," Baynard said in a memo to the board.

The board took no action, but Superintendent Herbert Berg said he would have cost estimates ready by October.

Whether the board will find enough money remains to be seen. The most ambitious recent experiment in reducing class size is in California, where the governor and the legislature have agreed to spend $1 billion to try to reduce classes to no more than 20 children in the lower grades. California schools, also short of space, have turned parts of gyms and cafeterias into classrooms to qualify for the money.

Northern Virginia educators say they are interested in initiatives like Fairfax's and Alexandria's but warn that their budgets may not stand the strain. McDonell, who started the Fairfax program, said she wanted to extend it to the second grade, "but we had to cut that because of budget difficulties."

Arlington County school administrators gave principals the authority to use non-classroom teachers, such as music specialists or librarians, to reduce their elementary school class sizes, but few did so. Hiring more teachers to reduce class size, said Kathleen F. Grove, Arlington's assistant superintendent for instruction, "is an enormous investment in a large school system."

In Loudoun County, School Board members clashed over the issue of high school class sizes during recent budget debates and voted 7 to 2 to let pupil-teacher ratios in those upper grades increase to save money. D. Kim Price-Munoz, one of the members who voted against the change, said that the district would like to reduce its elementary class size but that money is tight and it has only a small proportion of the poor children whom the state is willing to subsidize.

In Prince William, Keen said school districts with less explosive growth, such as Alexandria's, have a better chance to lower K-3 sizes than his district does.

"It would take three times as much money for a growing system like Prince William to do it," he said.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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