Cash-strapped, crowded schools eye ways to help all students

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Skeptics of class size reduction think the money and space could be used more effectively. Matthew M. Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, has written extensively about costs and benefits of class size reduction. He agrees class size impacts student achievement but argues the effects are too small to merit the expense.

New approaches

Chingos advocates shifting funds toward raising starting salaries and investing in professional development in order to improve teacher quality. According to a comprehensive 2007 report by McKinsey & Company, similar measures have proven extremely effective in boosting student achievement in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, countries that now boast the highest performing students in the world.

Chingos suggests school systems that are committed to class size reduction focus those efforts on populations where data show class size matters most: low-income and minority students in the early grades.

For now, small classes are not an option at Bennion, even though the student population is ideal for reaping the benefits. However, school principal James Yapias is trying other, less expensive interventions, including providing one-to-one support and extended school hours for students who are struggling. Both measures are considered highly effective by the U.S. Department of Education.

Yapias is meticulous about tracking student performance in order to target interventions. According to his records of data from the district, more than two-thirds of students tested proficient in language arts last year, compared with just over half in 2010. This is especially meaningful given the fact that enrollment at Bennion has grown 65 percent in that time.

"It all depends on how knowledgeable school administrators are about funding sources and community partnerships," Yapias said.

To provide one-to-one attention to young students, Bennion partners with two local colleges that send tutors to work with students who are struggling during the school day. Grant money funds additional help for students after school and during school holidays.

Educators at Bennion also hope the high kindergarten enrollment will qualify the school for a small chunk of state and district funding specifically set aside for class size reduction in the early grades. If so, Yapias will hire a part-time teacher to teach English language arts and math to one-third of the almost 60 kindergarten students. That teacher will meet with the students for two hours a day in one of the two classrooms that, for now, sit empty at the end of the kindergarten hall.

Email: gkrebs@desnews.com

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