Head of School Blog

Class Size at All Saints

Jill Singleton
When I joined the All Saints community in 2004, my son, Elijah, transferred into the Third Grade class. He was the fifth student in that class. That year, and every year since, class size has been a topic of discussion at All Saints. What’s interesting, however, is that in the past three years, the conversation has shifted 180 degrees – from a sense that class sizes are too small to questioning whether they are approaching a size that is too large. Since it has come up in a few recent conversations with parents, I thought it was worth offering a little background to provide some broader context.

Research related to class size has proven to have mixed results. While many believe that “smaller classes equal increased achievement,” this statement is not definitively supported by research. The equation is much more complicated, involving many factors: teacher quality, student motivation, curriculum standards, and school leadership all play critical roles.
Nationally, independent school class sizes average 19.6 students per class – a number we support and strive to achieve. At All Saints, our goal is 16-20 per class, with 18 being the sweet spot. Given that enrollment is as much an art as science, our numbers can fluctuate based on the applicant pool in a given year. There are several factors that must are relevant to the discussion:

Class size vs. ratio
When looking at class sizes, an important consideration is the staffing provided. Our classes currently have a head teacher and an assistant in Nursery through Grade 1. The two Second Grade classes share an assistant, Grade 3 has a full-time assistant, and Grade 4 has a 3/4 assistant. In addition, Grades 1-8 benefit from the push-in support of an academic enrichment teacher, creating ratios that allow for small learning groups in reading and math.

Intentional vs. random selection
When looking at class sizes at All Saints, one must consider that a class of 18 intentionally-selected students is very different than the same number of randomly assigned students in a public school classroom. All of the students admitted to our school undergo a rigorous admissions process to ensure that they are capable of personal success, are able to contribute meaningfully to class discussions and activities, and are capable of meeting our high academic standards. Additionally, families are also carefully vetted for alignment with our school’s values and culture. The result is that we are able to build strong classes that allow our teachers to maximize every moment of teaching time.

Reality of attrition
Several years ago, we made an intentional decision to increase class sizes at the lower grades to weather the storm of attrition in the early elementary grades. Despite significant gains and our best hopes and efforts (as well as a developing trend of families seeking to raise their children in Hoboken), we still see a number of families move to the suburbs each year. While retention numbers are consistently improving, changes from year to year are idiosyncratic, making precise forecasting a challenge. Slightly larger classes in the lower grades ensure robust classes in elementary and middle school. Additionally, having “homegrown” students – those students who have been with us since their early formative years – provides a strong foundation for sustaining a culture of personal commitment, strong values, and a dedicated work ethic.

Responsible staffing
At All Saints, we staff classrooms according to student need. For example, sometimes a class of 17 will require an assistant teacher, and sometimes it won’t. These decisions are made with input from teachers who know the particular students best. We are 100% committed to making sure that our teachers and students have the human resources they need to meet our high standards for learning and achievement.

Small schools vs. small classes
Prior to his retirement as the president of the National Association of Independent Schools last year, Pat Bassett was careful to caution independent schools about over-hyping the importance of small classes. According to Pat, a more reliable predictor of success is small school size and great teaching. “The most compelling research in the education marketplace in general and by NAIS indicates that it is small schools (i.e., intimate places where all students are known) and great teachers that are the two factors that produce high achievement in students.” To illustrate his point, Pat points out: “If you gave anyone a choice, including faculty, of having their own children in a small class with just an average teacher or a large class with a great teacher, everyone would choose the latter, and wisely so.” (To read Pat’s full blog: http://www.nais.org/Presidents-Corner/Presidents-Blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?List=a5fa8a61%2D7db4%2D4408%2D9e71%2D152670940bc3&ID=270&Web=8544a572%2D104a%2D4d86%2Dbf80%2D058334725dde)

What the data suggests pretty clearly is what we already know – that learning is a complex issue influenced by many factors. The success of an educational environment can never be reduced to simple numbers. The teacher’s passion, professionalism, and enthusiasm for learning, combined with the students’ level of preparation and engagement, all play significant roles in the process. Other factors include skilled leadership, parental support/involvement, and demographics. When I look at our school through the broader lens of these harbingers of success, it is no wonder that we have such a thriving program full of engaged and competent students. Class size is merely one piece of the puzzle.

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Comments? Thoughts? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me:jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com.