Guilford County Schools has done well with reducing the number of students in its classrooms, but it could be doing more, according to one education expert.

Charles Achilles, a professor at Eastern Michigan University and Seton Hall University in New Jersey, reviewed the district's efforts Thursday and talked about national research on the subject with school officials and Guilford County Board of Education members.Students in smaller classes improved academically at a faster rate than their peers, according to a report district officials released Thursday. In some schools, students improved an average of 40 percent points in math within three years.

Guilford officials in 2001 began reducing the number of students in 10 elementary schools down to 15 students per teacher in kindergarten through second grade. The ranks have since grown to 25 elementary schools as part of the district's "equity plus" system, where poor schools receive more money, supplies, teachers and administrators.

Students in regular-sized classes also improved during the past three years, but they did so in most cases at half the rate.

District officials caution that the report does not account for other programs that also could be influencing student performance, so results cannot be solely attributed to reducing class size. Also, for students who have benefitted from smaller classes the longest - since they were in kindergarten - only one year of standardized test data is available. Students are first tested in third grade.

Despite the large gains, the district could be doing even better, Achilles said.

He suggested the district create a pilot program similar to STAR, which he oversaw in 1985 in Tennessee. Students attended classes with between 13 to 17 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade.

Students from that study have since graduated from high school. Long-term results show those students had better graduation rates than their peers, a higher grade point average and were more likely to go to college, Achilles said.

STAR differed from Guilford's efforts in a couple of key areas, Achilles said. Students in the Tennessee study were randomly placed, meaning parents could not request specific teachers or ask that their child be with certain students. And once students were grouped, they stayed together as they moved to the next grade.

The randomness allowed students from different backgrounds and academic levels to learn from each other, Achilles said. Keeping the groups together fostered a sense of community, which improved behavior and academics, he said.

Also, intervention must begin early and the small classes must be for three or four years, he said. And classes must be intensive; students shouldn't be pulled out to work with a reading or math specialist, he said.

"I don't really see small classes being done in Greensboro," based on that criteria, Achilles said. "These are the five things that make small class sizes work."

Several schools have made significant progress so far, Superintendent Terry Grier said.

"You're lucky. They're making gains," Achilles said. "But my question would be, 'What gains could they have made?' "

He referred the board to North Carolina's Burke County, which began a program in the 1990s based on the STAR report. Last year, all but one of the district's 24 regular schools had more than 80 percent of students passing state tests.

The Guilford County school board has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to help poor elementary students, including the small-class initiative. Guilford spends an additional $723 per student. The cost includes creating smaller classes and adding extra administrators and supplies at poor schools.

Board member Nancy Routh, a former elementary school principal, said she agrees "wholeheartedly" with the concept.

She also agreed with Achilles' assessment of the role of teacher assistants. Originally, they were meant to help teachers with administrative duties, such as grading papers, handling lunch and bus duty, and giving teachers restroom breaks.

They now are more likely to be handling teaching duties, such as tutoring, Achilles said.

Grier said officials still hear about the need for teacher assistants. He asked what the study shows.

In the STAR report, regular-sized classrooms outperformed classes of the same size that had an aide, Achilles said. Small classes outperformed both.

In classrooms with aides, teachers tend to give troublesome students to the assistant, he said. The child does not benefit from the teacher's greater experience, and students who may have disabilities are not identified as quickly as those in a small classroom where the teacher is solely responsible for achievement, Achilles said.

"If this is (what's happening) as the research seems to show so clearly, then we need to have an assistant policy," said board member Dot Kearns.

In 2001, Grier traded in teacher assistant positions to create the smaller classes. About 80 assistants have yet to pass a new test, mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Grier said. They have until January 2006 to comply. The board will have to decide how it will deal with those employees.

They could be shifted into more clerical positions, if state law allows, he said.

Their positions also could be traded in to hire more teachers and reduce class size as assistants leave or retire, Grier said.

\ Contact Jennifer Fernandez at 373-7064 or jfernandez@news-record.com

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

Load comments