Class size is a key determinant for academic success

To the Editor:

I have served on the Board of Albany Community Action Partnership, a federally-funded organization that provides a variety of social services to a many communities in the Albany County, including urban as well as rural settings. Numerous early-childhood development classrooms and Head Start programs are supported by ACAP throughout the county, including a small center in the Hilltowns.

These districts and schools served by ACAP face significant resource issues, and major among them is maintaining appropriate class sizes. This is not the only issue these districts may face, of course, but they all impact student performance.

Although the problems of these districts may not exist at the same level or be the same in suburban districts like Guilderland, the teachers in Guilderland face similar challenges. For example, over 20 different languages are spoken in the homes of Guilderland students, which require interventions for second-language learners.

Some of our schools, including Altamont Elementary School, have experienced growing numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Altamont Elementary School has won recognition as a Blue Ribbon School for succeeding well despite these real and perceived impediments to learning.

However, as was pointed out by parents and teacher representatives at a recent board of education meeting, it seems too that the class size numbers in the school have increased in the kindergarten classes, as well as in Pine Bush Elementary School upper grades. Both kindergarten classes at Altamont exceed the district maximum with 24 students per class, and Pine Bush third through fifth grades are at 24 to 26 students per class.

The district standard is 18 to 23 students per class on average across the district. Although the district average may meet the standard generally, the class sizes in the two elementary schools are above the district average.

Rather than depend on the teachers to make the difficult adjustments of increasing numbers in their classes, this is an opportunity for the district to take the lead to alleviate the problem of increasing class size in these situations.

Although I understand the way the numbers work, the essential outcome is, as The Altamont Enterprise reported last week, quoting parents speaking at a school board meeting, the children in the these schools, particularly in Altamont, are impacted directly at the beginning of their schooling, a most critical time in shaping student success.

The district indicated that the numbers of students increased in these classes in part because of late enrollments. If history repeats itself, the numbers may increase more if new late enrollments take place in the next several weeks.

Planning for the additional students seems important, to avoid these unintended and negative outcomes. Class size is linked to student success, which is backed by much research.

As one parent pointed out in the Enterprise article, the grade level where above-average teacher-to-child ratios occur is at entry into kindergarten when children are most vulnerable and when creating a base for enjoyable and successful school experiences is most important.

In 2014-15, when there was much discussion about closing Altamont Elementary School, the consultant’s main premise was that enrollments were projected to decline. As a result of much discussion, the district demonstrated an intense commitment to look at the predicted enrollment declines, including watching carefully to see if they may trend in other directions.

Guilderland’s overall population increased by over 3 per cent in the 2010 census and was projected to increase rather than decrease in years ahead. It seems that the recent discussions about the class size suggest, at least at this level, that these trends must continue to be looked at carefully.

If budgetary decisions are made solely on the macro level, masking the effects that overall budget decisions about teachers and class size have on the ground, and, most importantly, in the early elementary years, fine-tuning needs to take place.

The district did put aside the consultant's recommendations, and wiser decisions were made to keep Altamont Elementary School open. As the district contemplates the issues raised about class size, I trust that the district will respond to these concerns and make appropriate permanent adjustments that are not just at the macro level, but rather at the school level in these two examples.

The discussion in 2014-15 brought out many points about the importance of Altamont Elementary School to its residents and the community’s commitment to the education of its children. The community’s involvement then helped the district respond and make appropriate adjustments.

I do think that the parents and teacher representatives quoted in the Enterprise article have provided some telling statistics about the recent situation, especially when you compare Guilderland with the other districts in the Suburban Council, that should be heeded.

The Enterprise article stated that the Altamont Elementary School leadership is ready to find ways to redistribute the students to produce three balanced classes, which seems to be the best solution in this case.

I hope that Tuesday’s meeting will result in the board providing support for these specific situations and serve to remind us all that constant monitoring of decisions about our children’s education is always in our community’s best interest.

James M. Gaughan

Altamont Mayor

2005 to 2017

More Letters to the Editor