Crowded classrooms greet Utah students returning to school

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28 2013 5:00 p.m. MDT

Brandon Maulis, sixth-grade teacher at Butterfield Canyon Elementary in Herriman, talks about what it's like to work with 30 or more students in one class Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

HERRIMAN — Sixth-grade teacher Brandon Maulis stood in front of his 30 students Wednesday at Butterfield Canyon Elementary School, reading from "Little Red Riding Hood" and posing who, what, where, when and why questions to the class.

His class had already dropped from 31 to 30 students since the first day of school, but Maulis said the numbers typically grow, not shrink, as the school year progresses.

"This is the largest class I've ever had at the beginning of the year," he said. "I've gotten up to 30, but I've never started with 30. It's a lot to start with."

Maulis' classroom is housed in one of Butterfield Canyon's 14 portables, or temporary structures, arranged in a half-circle that surrounds the school grounds.

Assistant Principal Jodi Stewart-Browning said about one-fourth of the school's 1,320 students attend class in portables, including the school's entire fifth grade.

"That's as many portables as we can house because of electricity and water and the drain on the building," she said. "Next year a new school will open and take some of our kids, but we'll still be 1,000-plus."

It's a situation that's increasingly commonplace along the Wasatch Front and throughout Utah, as a burgeoning student population and scant funds for teachers and physical space have sent class sizes swelling to some of the highest in the nation.

In Davis School District, there are 10 sixth-grade classes with more than 33 students, 13 fifth-grade classes with more than 32 students, seven fourth-grade classes with more than 31 students, and five kindergarten classes with more than 28 students, according to district spokesman Chris Williams.

"We’re not sitting around. We’ve been looking at numbers really hard for the last five weeks or so," Williams said. "This is something that’s very critical, and we need to do the best we can to staff the classrooms and staff the schools with the budget we have."

Official enrollment numbers will not be available until November, State Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson said, but the number of students in Utah's public schools is projected to reach nearly 615,000 during the 2013-14 school year, up 2.2 percent from last year.

Class sizes have increased in the state since 2010 — and potentially longer, as changes in the calculation method make comparisons before 2010 difficult — with the median number of students hitting the mid-20s in elementary schools and low 30s in middle and high schools, according to State Office of Education reports.

In 2012, the most recent year for which statewide class size data are available, the median size for a kindergarten class was 22 students, and the median size for a high school geometry class was 31.

Because numbers are aggregated at the district level, the median class size reports do not always reflect the realities of individual classrooms. Last year, Advanced Placement classes at Logan High School surpassed 50 students as the district dealt with a reduction in personnel due to financial strains.

The National Education Association in 2011 ranked Utah second in the nation for the largest student-to-teacher ratios, which is different and typically smaller than actual class sizes since classroom aides and teachers who work with small groups of students decrease the per-teacher ratio. The NEA found Utah to have an average of 21.9 students per teacher, behind only California with a ratio of 25.6.

"As a teacher, it does make a difference," Stewart-Browning said of class size.

Maulis said his ideal number for a sixth-grade class would be around 25, with earlier grades closer to 20. He said as the numbers grow, teachers are not able to spend as much individual time with their students for reading or math instruction, and classes are allotted less access to school resources such as computer labs or physical education.

"Kids need to be active," he said, "especially in elementary school."

Utah's large classes have been a perennial subject at the state Legislature, but because class size is directly tied to the number of teachers a school is able to employ, many attempts at addressing the issue have stalled due to a lack of funding.

During the most recent legislative session, Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, sponsored a bill that would have placed caps on class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The bill was revised to instead require schools to report on their use of more than $100 million in class-size reduction funds that are distributed each year, which education officials say accounts for the median class size being three students less than it otherwise would be.

In Granite School District, high school principals are responding to a higher-than-expected turnout as students who failed to preregister for classes arrive for the first days of school.

District spokesman Ben Horsley said an additional 162 students, or the equivalent of five classes, have been added to the rolls of Hunter High School, while enrollment at the new Granger High School has swelled to roughly 3,000.

"That's just how every first of year works," he said. "You have kids walk in that are in-boundary and they have to be accepted."

Horsley said it makes for a busy first few weeks as administrators determine how to reallocate desks and classroom space. At Granger, he said, classrooms that would otherwise be empty during a teacher's preparation period are used for "traveling teachers" whose subjects are more adaptable.

"The bulk of our classrooms, we can utilize that space if we need to," Horsley said. "We have enough resources. It's just a matter of sorting through."

Stewart-Browning said Butterfield Canyon tries to mitigate the downside of large classes by working with intervention specialists — certified teachers who peel off groups of students to provide individualized attention on core subjects. But even if funding were available to hire new teachers and split classes, Butterfield Canyon would need a second story to house them, she said.

"We don't have a place to put them," Stewart-Browning said.

When asked if there was any upside to large classes, Maulis paused before shaking his head.

"I can't think of any," he said. "I really can't think of any."

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

Twitter: bjaminwood

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