While a recent survey revealed that overall class sizes in Carroll County are down slightly or holding steady, some schools are struggling to balance growing enrollments with a mission to provide a quality education for each student.
The problem seems especially acute in core academic classes, such as English and social studies, at high schools in the southern portion of the county - one of the fastest-growing regions in the state.
For example, at Liberty High in Eldersburg, 55 percent of the school's English classes have more than 30 students. At South Carroll High in Winfield, 72 percent of the social studies classes have more than 30 students.
Class sizes of more than 30 students are generally regarded as less than ideal, presenting challenges in dealing with a wider range of academic abilities, according to interviews with local administrators, teachers and students.
"Any time you have higher class size averages, it diminishes the time students can interact with the teacher individually and you always have classroom management issues," said George Phillips, principal at South Carroll High. "But to say it's a huge problem here is incorrect."
Phillips said that while he doesn't prefer having teachers with packed classrooms, his concern is mixed because of research that indicates there is no significant difference in learning in classes between 15 and 30 students.
School officials, who surveyed class sizes at all the county's schools this fall, found the average class size at elementary schools was 21.8 pupils, compared with 21.7 last year. In the middle schools, the average class size was 25.53 pupils, down from 26 last year. At the high school level, the average class size was 25.7 students, compared with 25.9 last year.
"If you can get classes below 20, that's when you see significant learning increases," Phillips said.
Although educators differ in their opinions about the ideal class size - with many at odds over whether smaller classes equate to a higher quality of learning - state education officials determine school construction funding based on assumed capacity of 22 kindergartners per classroom, 23 pupils in grades one through five, and 25 students for middle and high school classrooms. The state does not require school systems to limit class sizes.
Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said that class sizes in Carroll County are determined by the district's overall funding - how many classrooms need to be staffed and how many teachers he can afford to hire.
Ecker said that while he is concerned about having too many classes with more than 30 students, reducing class sizes across the board hasn't been shown to yield better learning environments.
"Emotionally and psychologically, [smaller class sizes] make a difference," he said. "But you have to get class sizes down to 15 to 18 students before it really makes a difference."
Research, however, is small comfort for teachers who must juggle the needs of students with a range of learning abilities and learning styles.
"Some teachers are concerned about their class sizes - justifiably so," said Phillips, who added that some of his teachers have more than 35 students. "I try to balance it as best as I can."
He said some classes - especially intensive courses such as Advanced Placement or low-ability classes - are more problematic when the teacher has more than 30 students.
"I'm a little bit concerned about it, but at this point I'm not sure what I can do," he said. "Would I love to have every class here at 20 students? Absolutely. But is that practical? No."
Ecker has estimated it would cost $37 million - to hire more teachers and build additional classrooms - to reduce class sizes at all grade levels.
Of that estimate, nearly $17 million would be needed to reduce class sizes to 21 pupils in the county's elementary schools, Ecker told school board members earlier this fall.
Meanwhile, students seem to have mixed opinions about whether big classes hinder their educational experience. At South Carroll, 10th-grader Lina Calin and ninth-grader Michelle Sorando see positives and negatives with their larger classes.
Lina said she attended private school through the seventh grade and had very small classes. She said she prefers her larger classes, such as her honors chemistry course with more than 30 students, because she is exposed to a greater variety of ideas from her peers.
"I like the energy of the larger classes," Lina said. "There's so many more people to get to know and all the different ideas they have."
Student teacher Dustin Jeter, who graduated from McDaniel College in May, agrees that there are benefits to the larger classes, but prefers a class size in the mid-20s.