In a former job of a former life, I worked at a small elementary school in the south end of the Seattle. There was a wild and free-spirited third grade girl who ruled the roost, not just in her grade, but in every setting presented to her. We’ll call her Angela. She was obviously bright, she obviously had potential as a student and human being, but she had a hard edge to her that usually netted a negative result in our school community.
In my capacity at the school I did not work in third grade; in fact, I did not work in this girl’s classroom at all. Nevertheless, I interacted with her on the playground and in the lunchroom and her older sister was in my cross-grade global education group every other week. All of this is to say that I did not have a significant relationship with this girl who had trust issues who appeared to be fiercely independent. However, she knew who I was, I knew who she was and she knew that many students did have a significant relationship with me, and, in fact, trusted me.
This became important on a typically rainy day in November some years back. I was performing my hall duty outside the lunchroom at the end of the school day, “choppin’ it up” with my favorite parents and students as they headed home. All seemed well, until Angela tearfully called my attention from down the hallway. She was wet, crying and nearly hyperventilating. As I approached her, she immediately hugged me. This was out of character for her, to say the least.
An unnerving story slowly unravelled as Angela began to breath deep and calm down. A man had approached her on her walk home. A man she had seen on the streets around her house. In fact, the man had followed her for a block or two. The man had threatened her and she had run back to school even though she was more than half-way home. She wasn’t sure anyone was home at her house and she knew the school was close enough and safe enough to be her sure bet. Her grandmother was reached by phone and I was given permission to drive Angela home. She did not seem quick to leave my side. Her grandmother met us at Angela’s house, heated up bowl of pozole for me and offered me a can of Coca-Cola.
I stayed and chatted with Angela’s family for a few hours. Her grandmother used to work for the school district, but her health declined and she was on medical assistance. Angela’s older brother came home with a friend, made the house reek of marijuana and disappeared into a bedroom. Angela’s father, who was commuting nearly two hours each way to Olympia to work on a construction job, called and said he had a flat tire. He wasn’t sure when he’d be home. Angela’s mother was not in the picture.
Angela, her grandmother and I devised a plan for her to get home safely each day. I put the grandmother’s phone number into my phone. We checked in often and the scary incident with the screaming man on the street did not repeat itself. This is not a unique story. This is, I imagine, a common story for many teachers in many poorer school communities in the U.S. However, it is an important story because it illustrates the level of intimacy that a small school community can have, a level of intimacy which is very difficult to achieve in big schools with big class sizes.
Parents want their children’s’ teachers to know them. Well, I wasn’t even Angela’s teacher and I knew her. And more importantly, she knew me well enough to trust me in her moment of need. There is a lot of debate about the research around class size. I had planned to write about that debate, but instead found myself thinking about the close relationships I have had with many students and families over the years, how I knew every child’s name at that school in the south end, and how I had got to know all those students by working in small groups with them.
The National Education Policy Center recently published a review of the major research around class size and its executive summary states, “The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.” But as Publicola pointed out in their Op-Ed recommending a ‘No’ vote on Initiative 1351, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that the research is a mixed bag in terms of class size reduction positively affecting student learning.
What is not ambiguous is parent sentiment about the issue of class size. In 2000, voters passed Initiative 728 mandating class size reduction with a 72 percent majority. In her endorsement of I-1351, Melissa Westbrook of the influential Save Seattle Schools blog, states that, “Throughout the years, this blog has asked parents, ‘What matters to you?’ I can ask again but over and over (after good teachers and safe buildings), class sizes is always number one and arts is always number two.” A recent Elway Poll showed that I-1351 had 66-24 support with Washington voters.
I agree with Melissa Westbrook when she says that “I don’t care what the research says in this case.” I don’t need research to tell me that smaller class sizes and more intimate school communities result in better school communities. Just ask Angela.
Initiative 1351 would cap classes so that by 2018 the average K-3 class size would be 17, and the average 4-12 class size would be 25. The state Office of Financial Management estimates that I-1351 would possibly cost the state an additional $4.7 billion through 2019.