Smaller classes deliver results

Teachers: Annapolis' Georgetown East Elementary provides its children with up-close reading instruction.

May 31, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

It looks like half of Pat Appell's first-graders are absent today. The same seems to be true next door in Michelle Magee's classroom.

In fact, pupils appear to be missing in all the first- and second-grade classrooms at Georgetown East Elementary School. Why else would everything seem so empty?

But this is how it's supposed to look every day in a school fiercely devoted to cutting class sizes: Classes of only 14 or so young children seemingly dwarfed in spaces built for 25 or more.

"It's so different than every other school," Magee says. "We have so many more chances to work with our kids one on one."

Many elementary schools spend their thousands of dollars in federal poverty money on education's latest fads. Georgetown East spends its extra dollars on something more basic: more teachers.

Enough teachers so that Samantha Lean and her fellow second- and third-graders are able to have at least 40 minutes of reading instruction each day with usually no more than seven other children in the classroom.

Enough teachers so that struggling readers - whether they're 6 years old or 10 - get extra help almost every day, either individually or in groups of four or five pupils.

"It makes all of the difference," says Georgetown's principal for the past three years, Michele Marks. "The first-grade kids come in with such a wide range of reading abilities, from those who can read to those who don't know all of their letters. Having a class that's 15 is much more effective than a class that's 25."

For this Annapolis elementary school, smaller class sizes than most other elementaries have helped propel the school to among the very best in Anne Arundel County at teaching reading.

Georgetown East is among the top three elementary schools in the county in reading test scores when student demographic factors are held constant, according to a statistical analysis by The Sun.

The school's success largely relies on the same factors as other exceptional schools profiled in this series: phonics, extra time devoted to reading, plenty of remedial help, and a principal who enforces those priorities.

But for Georgetown East, what's really paid off is cutting class sizes to ensure instruction in small groups.

The best research on class size has found that student achievement tends to improve when early grade classes are kept below 17 pupils. As a result, as the drive to teach reading well by third grade has taken on urgency in the past few years, so has the push to lower class sizes.

Last year, a Maryland task force recommended that elementaries across the state cut class sizes in the early grades to between 13 and 17 pupils, far below the state average of 22 to 25 pupils.

Yet reducing class sizes is extremely expensive - both for hiring extra teachers and building extra classroom space - making the statewide effort spotty so far.

For example, Baltimore City has cut most of its early grade classes to below 22 pupils. But Montgomery County's elementaries don't reduce class sizes for the whole day. Instead they give all first- and second-graders 90 minutes of continuous reading instruction in groups of no more than 15 pupils.

The push to cut class sizes has taken on such significance that Howard County politicians were willing to raise taxes last year to pay for it. And last week, Howard's school board and political leaders concluded weeks of budget wrangling by scraping together enough money to ensure that all first- and second-grade classes will be reduced in the fall from an average of 25 pupils to 19.

At Georgetown East Elementary in Annapolis, teacher Appell loves that she gets to work with only 14 first-graders at a time - calling it "a wonderful chance to really teach." She smiles when she talks about being the envy of teachers at elementaries that have as many as 26 pupils in their classes.

At least 10 desks sit unused in her classroom, and there's always lots of space for pupils to spread out on the floor, curling up to read by themselves or in pairs. "Find the word tighter," Appell tells three children seated near her at a semicircular wooden table. All three point to it on a page of their tiny book on butterflies.

Moments later, 7-year-old Kierra Creek struggles with the word caterpillar.

"Frame the word that you know," Appell tells Kierra.

"Cat," Kierra says, as she puts her fingers around the first syllable and ignores the rest. Then, sound by sound, she works her way through the word. "Caterpillar!" she finally exclaims, beaming with a big smile.

The group - Appell, Kierra and two other girls - have no trouble concentrating, largely because the rest of the class is small enough and spread out over enough space that those children have little cause to make noise, get distracted or interrupt.

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