GREENSBORO — On paper, this all looks so tidy.
Under state law, kindergarten through third-grade classes may not exceed 24 students per teacher. That drops to 23 next school year and lower the year after that.
But students don’t always come in “neat little packages,” as one Guilford County Schools administrator puts it.
That’s a reality Coshenda Clark and a fellow second-grade teacher faced earlier this year, when their classes at Johnson Street Global Studies in High Point reached 30 students each.
Class sizes in regular K-3 classrooms range from 10 to 33, with many clustering around 22, according to a News & Record analysis of the district’s annual tally for the 20th day of school last fall. About 75 of 1,017 traditional classrooms in those grades had 25 or more students.
Oversized classes bring dual challenges. One: Finding a fix to get the class under the limit in way that’s not overly disruptive. Two: Making sure students receive effective instruction on par with students in smaller classes.
Shirley Morrison, Guilford County Schools’ chief human resources officer, earlier this year said the district allots teachers based on projected enrollments, but sometimes more students show up than what’s expected.
The district works to correct ratios that surpass that limit on the 20th-day report. Options include splitting classes, employing two full-time teachers to serve the same class and using combination classes, where students from different grade levels are combined in one room.
What they can’t do, per board policy, is send students to a different school to balance out classes.
“That would probably make things a lot easier, but parents aren’t going to like that,” Morrison said. “If you talk to realtors, one of the things they highlight for people buying homes, ‘what’s the school zone; what schools are in this area.’ ”
Districts can apply for waivers in some circumstances. That includes emergencies, “Acts of God,” charter-school closures and an increase in enrollment greater than 2 percent of the total school population. Guilford County Schools has not applied for any waivers this school year or last, according to a spokesman with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
Adjusting over-the-limit classes will take on added urgency and added paperwork for North Carolina school districts in the coming years. Not only are state legislators decreasing class-size limits, but they’re also ramping up requirements for schools to prove they’re complying.
Districts will have to provide more reports, with more in-depth information, and superintendents will have to sign affidavits certifying the district’s compliance. As is true now, local school boards stand to lose the state’s contribution to the superintendent’s salary if the state finds the superintendent willfully failed to comply.
Guilford County Schools never has been in trouble with the state on that count that officials know of, Morrison and Chief Financial Officer Angie Henry indicated.
Clark is a veteran teacher who has been at Johnson Street for about 18 years. She said she has seen classes as small as 13. Last year, she said, her class had 27 to 28, which went uncorrected.
During the time she has served, her school’s magnet program has started to attract more students, and now its attendance zone is booming, too, with enrollment fluctuating from year to year.
“The word is out about Johnson Street,” Principal Kristina Wheat said.
District spokeswoman Nora Murray said the district projected 48 students would enroll in second grade for 2016-17 at Johnson Street. That would have made for two classes of 24 each.
But Clark’s class started the year a bit higher than that, and although her numbers fluctuated, the class pushed up to 29 students. It took until second semester, about February or so, for the school to implement it’s class-size fix and bring the second-grade classes in line with state requirements. By that time she had 30 students.
Parents, she said, never brought her any concerns about the class size, only asking how many students were in the class when they wanted to bring treats. Plus, she suggested, there’s just a lot more people involved in teaching these students than a 1 to 30 ratio might imply.
Teaching still must be tailored to each student’s levels and needs, and that didn’t pose a problem for Clark, based on how she describes it.
“I think you have to know your students, you have to truly use your data to guide your instruction, but you also have to use all people that are provided to you or that you can find,” Clark said Tuesday in an interview. “Utilize people and make them feel like they are part of that village. It can’t be just ‘yours, yours,’ when it’s that big.”
Two interpreters worked with hearing-impaired students in Clark’s classroom. Dora Slack, a Foster Grandparent volunteer, served from early morning to 1 p.m. each day. And paid, certified tutors floated around the school.
The school’s curriculum facilitator was another frequent visitor, Clark said, and parents were a big help, too. They’ve even pitched in on advance prep work such as cutting pages for a project for students to put together booklets.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for those volunteers to come in,” Clark said, praising colleagues for their teamwork, too. “A lot of times teachers get to a point where, ‘It’s my room, and I don’t want anyone in it,’ but invite those people in, because those volunteers, those tutors, your (curriculum facilitator), your principal, those people help you with that instruction.
“It makes it a lot more manageable than when you are sitting there with a large group, and you are trying to figure out, ‘Well how am I going to get in my guided reading time? How am I going to get in guided math with just me?’ ”
The school’s interventionist helped ease some of the pressure, taking a handful of students each day to work on reading and math to catch up. She provided the eventual “fix.”
Instead of adding a brand-new teacher at the school, Wheat said, she and her staff created a new classroom for that interventionist with the handful of students she had been helping from Clark’s class and the five from the other second-grade class.
Wheat first sought buy-in from parents — they were enthusiastic about a small class for their students — and then tried out the new arrangement before making it permanent.
Tying her up with her own class meant the interventionist couldn’t work with students in other grades.
Still, the new arrangement got some good reviews.
“They are reading more, and they are learning to spell better without having to go to their work books,” Slack, the Foster Grandparent, said of three “grandchildren” she had been helping who moved into the new class.
They may be in a new academic classroom, but those handful of students are still connected to Clark and her other students.
“We go to specials, and we go to lunch together,” Clark said. “So we are still all a big family.”