Lemont-Bromberek School District 113A is tied for the highest average class size in the state, but based on where the southwest suburban district was less than a decade ago, district leaders will take it.
Suffering a massive financial crisis in 2010, the district’s Board of Education cut 70 teaching positions, 25 percent of administrators and 25 percent of support staff; and eliminated transportation routes, as well as art, music, clubs, sports and activities. The board also closed a school. There were 30-45 students per class.
“Since that point, the district has taken many measures to reduce our class size,” District 113A Superintendent Courtney Orzel said in a written response to Chronicle Media questions.
So, even though the district is tied with O’Fallon Community Consolidated School District 90 and Indian Prairie Community School District 204 in west suburban Aurora for the largest average class sizes in the state at 27 students per class, District 113A leaders are happy with where they’re at now.
“While 27 might be our average, we currently have 22 students in kindergarten, 27 in grades 1-4 and 28 in grade 5. Our middle school ranges from 25 students to 32 students,” Orzel said. “We have worked very hard over the course of the past years to continue to reduce our class sizes from what they once were a few years ago.”
Carrie Hruby, superintendent of O’Fallon District 90 in St. Clair County, said, like District 113A, the district is in better shape regarding class size than it used to be. She said the state’s new school-funding model has helped lower the number of students per class in the district.
“We have put money back into the classrooms to reduce class sizes,” Hruby said.
She said the district has been adding four or five teachers per year to lower class size, and took a bigger step this year in bringing seven additional teachers on board.
Hruby said prior to Evidence-Based Funding going into effect, the district continued to lose teachers due to budget constraints.
“The board had no choice but to reduce teachers through (annual reductions in force) and not hire replacement teachers when teachers retired,” Hruby said.
The O’Fallon superintendent said that her district is only at 60-70 percent of the funding level the Illinois State Board of Education set as an adequate level for educating students. The extra money her district gets as a Tier I district under the Evidence-Based Funding formula gave leaders of the school system the impetus to bring on more teachers.
“They felt confident of the additional funding and approved the fall hiring of class-size-reduction teachers,” Hruby said.
The new District 90 hires for this year were not given a grade or classroom, being told they would be assigned when the enrollment numbers were in. Five of the class-size-reduction teachers wound up in district elementary schools; the other two joined the staff at the junior high school.
“The additional teachers brought our average down,” Hruby said. “So for our elementary schools the average is probably around 24.”
Research shows that when everything else is equal students in the early grades perform better in small classes, according to Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist who studies policies aimed at improving the lives of children in poverty, including education, health and income support policies.
Schanzenbach, who is director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research, said that smaller classes are important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who experience even larger performance gains than average students when enrolled in smaller classes.
“As best as we can tell when classes are in the range of 15-30 students, it does appear linear,” Schanzenbach said. “For every kid you take out of the classroom, it improves test scores by a little bit. However, there is no magic threshold. It is not like 18 is the magic bullet.”
The Northwestern professor has a second-grader who was in a three-teacher cohort last year. When a fourth teacher was added to the cohort this year, her daughter’s class dropped from 25-20 students.
“It made me happy,” Schanzenbach said.
The lowest average class sizes in the state are:
- 12 in Rich Township High School District 227
- 13 in Morrison Community Unit School District 6
- 13 in United Township High School District 30
- 14 in Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School District 233
- 15 in Gibson City-Melvin Sibley Community High School District 5
Illinois does not have any laws on the books mandating class size.
Both Schanzenbach and Hruby stopped short of saying lawmakers should legislate the issue.
“It needs to be a district decision,” Hruby said. “Districts look at things in different ways. Some districts saw larger classes and went to teacher’s aides. Sometimes that has worked well or districts can have someone co-teach a classroom … It depends on what the demographics in a district are, what the content is, what the age level is. Class size has to be looked at based on the priorities of a district and its residents.”
“You want kids to learn,” Schanzenbach said. “Illinois is on the larger side for class size. Districts need to adjust that.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Illinois ranks 35th for elementary schools and 36th for secondary schools in terms of class size. Statewide, class sizes have hovered, on average, between 20 and 21 students for the last five years, according to the agency.
Illinois is one of only 14 states with no class-size limits on the books, but Schanzenbach said mandated maximums are not a guarantee of success.
“Texas has a maximum, but they waive it all the time,” the Northwestern professor said.
Class size has become a hot-button issue in teacher contract negotiations. The Chicago Teachers’ Union is pushing for a limit of 23 or 24 students per classroom for elementary schools.
Parents 4 Teachers, a group of parents seeking quality public schools for all Chicago children, found that 13 elementary school classroom in the Chicago Public School system had 40 or more students during the 2018-19 school year, including a kindergarten class with 44 children.
Parents 4 Teachers noted that the overcrowded classrooms violate guidelines in the CTU/CPS collective bargaining agreement. Those guidelines call for no more than 28 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes and no more than 31 students in grades 4-6 classes.
“In CPS, the guidelines are just that, guidelines” the parents’ organization said in its analysis of class size data in Chicago public schools. “They are not enforceable.”
Parents 4 Teachers noted that it found:
- 1,007 kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms in CPS were in excess of the guidelines called for in the CTU contract.
- 4,454 kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms in CPS were in excess of the average class size at the University of Chicago Lab School, where the children of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel attend.
Schanzenbach said that more than 40 students in a classroom benefits neither students nor teachers.
“It is not good to have unusually large classes,” she said. “You want to improve academic achievement while preserving teacher quality. In situations, you can keep higher-quality teachers with reduced class sizes.”
Lemont District 113A’s Orzel said high class size does not always block academic achievement.
“When the district went through its financial crisis and had over 40 students in a class, our state test scores actually increased during that time,” she said. “This is a testament to the hard work and resiliency of our staff, and we continue to take measures to continue to reduce our class sizes. Yet we now see an increase in enrollment due to the success of our school district, which continues to pose major challenges.”
Schanzenbach said it is normally when classes get upward of 30 students that parents want changes made and show up at school board meetings demanding action.
“It comes down to common sense,” Schanzenbach said of class sizes. “I can teach an undergraduate class with 100 students, but you are not going to do that with a kindergarten class.”