Too many to learn?

In eight classrooms at Center Grove Elementary School, a teacher is trying to manage more than 30 students, and a group of parents want to know what, if any, steps the school district is taking to create smaller classes.

The parents equate at least a portion of student learning and success to class size and point to other central Indiana school districts who are making gains and limiting the number of children in each class. They want to know why Center Grove administrators are not making the class sizes smaller and whether the district has guidelines for an ideal class size.

A month into the school year, Superintendent Richard Arkanoff had a portable classroom brought to the Center Grove Elementary parking lot with the intention of taking about five children from each fourth-grade room to create a new class, which would reduce class sizes and the number of children inside the school.

Teachers resisted, advocating for no further changes for children who were already adjusting to a new school due to redistricting and just settling in to knowing their new classmates, teachers and hallways.

But for the school district overall, the age-old questions linger about how many children should be in each class and how class size effects learning and achievement.

More than 60 parents attended a forum about the school district’s academic achievement this week, and about five of them said they’ve been trying to get Arkanoff to address the issue. They say that the teachers and principals are doing the best they can, but the school board and superintendent need to reduce class sizes before next school year.

“The classroom size is an ongoing discussion,” Arkanoff said.

Center Grove Elementary gained more than 125 students from last school year to this fall, raising the total student population to 860.

Although Center Grove Elementary is the largest elementary school, parents are concerned about cramped classrooms in Sugar Grove Elementary, too. One Sugar Grove first-grade class has 28 or 29 children in it, a parent said.

Many parents said all elementary schools should have classes of no more than 25 students.

“I think all of the research shows that the smaller class sizes, the easier it becomes for the teacher to teach the class,” parent Rajeev Jain said.

Think of what could be accomplished with 20 students per classroom, one parent said.

Parent Shelley Salrin has two children who attend Center Grove Elementary. Her oldest daughter is one of 28 students in her third grade class. Salrin’s youngest, a kindergartner, is one of 26.

“Any other problems kind of trickle down from that,” Salrin said. “Really anything beyond 20 is insane at that young age.”

Arkanoff said class sizes are but one factor in student leaning; the greatest variable is teachers.

To that end, the district hired 11 instructional coaches who are licensed educators to help teachers tweak their lesson plans or learn other methods to educate students. The school district also hired one full-time assistant per kindergarten classroom district-wide, so they could have extra help in the larger classrooms.

Arkanoff has noted to parents, and again in an interview this week, that the number of children attending Center Grove Elementary does not violate fire codes relating to building occupancy. Arkanoff would like to see fewer students at Center Grove Elementary, but his top concern is with the overall school enrollment, not the class sizes.

Center Grove does not have set guidelines regarding the maximum number of children per classroom and is not taking steps to put those in place. The student population of Center Grove Elementary is too high, Arkanoff said, but he doesn’t have a plan put in place for how to reduce the number of students.

Ideally, he said, he wants fewer than 800 students to attend Center Grove Elementary. Next summer, the school district could decide to redistrict certain neighborhoods or pockets of homes among the elementary schools, Arkanoff said. No large redistricting like what occurred this past summer would be considered, he said.

The issue is being raised as Center Grove looks to elevate its students’ academic achievement and determine why ratings in standardized testing and graduation rates have stayed stagnant within the last five years while other schools have excelled.

“When I heard one of the administrators say, ‘we’re better than this,’ I said, ‘No we’re not,’” Salrin said. “We’re not better than this. When you have 30 kids in a class, what do you expect?”

Brownsburg schools, for example, decided five years ago to focus on smaller class sizes. They set guidelines in place per grade level so that students could learn more effectively, assistant superintendent Kat Jessup said.

“When you look at the amount of teaching and learning going on, whether that’s in kindergarten or high school, the more contact they have with teachers, the better they will do,” Jessup said.

Hamilton Southeastern school district in Fishers wants to lower class sizes by next school year as well.

Their class sizes rival Center Grove, with 30 or more students in third and fourth grade classrooms. Teachers are not able to contact students’ parents as often as they would like, said Jan Combs, assistant superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern schools.

The school district doesn’t have enough money to employ extra teachers, but they want to find a way for students to be in smaller groups — including using portable classrooms.

Although Brownsburg and Hamilton Southeastern are creating smaller classes, officials do not think their recent success in statewide testing scores or higher graduation rates was due only to the number of students per classroom.

“It doesn’t necessarily impact achievement, but it touches so many other things,” Combs said.

Parents noted that other school districts, comparable to Center Grove, have set guidelines or standards for their class sizes.

Brownsburg doesn’t want more than 22 students in their kindergarten classes and would ideally want as few as 18 in each classroom. The highest class size officials want at the elementary level is in Grades 3 through 5, with a range of 22 to 26 students per class. Hamilton Southeastern’s guidelines are similar, with class sizes ranging from 21 students in kindergarten to 28 students in fourth or fifth grade.

Class sizes were not expected to be this high throughout Center Grove schools. Although class sizes did go down in 18 classrooms, others stayed just as high or higher than last school year, according to their enrollment data from September. For example, fourth grade classes at Center Grove used to have 24 students per class, and now average 29 or 30 per classroom.

A redistricting plan put into place during the summer was supposed to even out enrollment among the elementary schools. Instead, more students showed up than ever before and enrollment went from 725 to 860 at Center Grove Elementary.

In March, school officials estimated Center Grove Elementary would have 662 students after redistricting. But after a math error was discovered on one of the calculations, the estimated student population went up to 763 two months later, based on their redistricting presentations.

Salrin said she told school administrators their calculations were wrong in March, but her warning was dismissed.

Also, more kindergartners than expected signed up at Center Grove Elementary. Parents transferred their children from private schools to Center Grove, and more families moved into White River Township than expected, Arkanoff said.

As a result, class sizes ranged from upper 20s to low 30s.

After seeing the higher student population at Center Grove Elementary, parent Jessica Keaton met with Arkanoff to discuss her want for smaller class sizes. Keaton also is Center Grove’s PTO president.

Keaton does not like seeing more than 30 students in every fourth and fifth grade classroom, she said.

She met with Arkanoff back in September, but has not seen any changes made to the class sizes, she said.

“I think that my children get an exceptional experience because of the teachers,” Keaton said. “But I don’t know if everything else supports that. I don’t know that 31 students is exceptional.”

By the numbers

Here’s a look at class sizes at other surrounding school districts:

Hamilton Southeastern School District

School district size: 21,000 students

Number of elementary schools: 12

Kindergarten – Average class size: 23 students, ideal class size: 21-23 students

First grade – Average class size: 24; ideal: 21-23

Second grade – Average class size: 25; ideal: 21-23

Third grade – Average class size: 26; ideal: 24-25

Fourth grade – Average class size: 27; ideal: 24-25

* Fifth-grade students are in middle schools or intermediate schools.

Brownsburg Community School Corp.

School district size: 8,400 students

Number of elementary schools: Six

Kindergarten – ideal class size: 18-22 students

First grade – ideal: 18-22

Second grade – ideal: 18-22

Third grade – ideal: 22-26

Fourth grade – ideal: 22-26

Fifth grade – ideal: 22-26

Avon Community School Corp.

School district size: 9,352 students

Number of elementary schools: Seven

Kindergarten – Average class size: 23 students

First grade – Average class size: 23

Second grade – Average class size: 23

Third grade – Average class size: 26

Fourth grade – Average class size: 25

Fifth grade – Average class size: 29

* Fifth- and sixth-grade students attend intermediate school

Franklin Community School Corp.

School district size: 5,084

Number of elementary schools: Five

Elementary-school-wide ideal class size: No more than 25 students

Kindergarten – Average class size: 23 students; ideal 20-22 students

First grade – Average class size: 23

Second grade – Average class size: 24

Third grade – Average class size: 25

Fourth grade – Average class size: 24

Clark-Pleasant Community School Corp.

School district size: 6,504

Number of elementary schools: Five

Kindergarten – Average class size: 22 students

First grade – Average class size: 21

Second grade – Average class size: 23

Third grade – Average class size: 22

Fourth grade – Average class size: 24

Fifth grade – Average class size: 28

Sixth grade – Average class size: 28

* Fifth- and sixth-grade students attend an intermediate school

By the numbers

Here’s a look at two of Center Grove’s elementary schools with higher average class sizes:

Center Grove Community School Corp.

Enrollment: 7,921

Number of elementary schools: Five

Center Grove Elementary School average students per class

Kindergarten – 24

First grade – 27

Second grade – 28

Third grade – 25

Fourth grade – 31

Fifth grade – 30

Sugar Grove Elementary School average students per class

Kindergarten – 26

First grade – 23

Second grade – 23

Third grade – 23

Fourth grade – 25

Fifth grade – 29