Anoka-Hennepin community shows concern about large class sizes

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

 

Anoka-Hennepin’s 2016 residential study showed that large class sizes are a growing concern in the community.

Kindergarten class sizes are the lowest in the district with between 19 and 22 students generally. Recent community survey results show that large class sizes are a growing concern in the district. File photo
Kindergarten class sizes are the lowest in the district with between 19 and 22 students generally. Recent community survey results show that large class sizes are a growing concern in the district. File photo

The district contracts with the Morris Leatherman Company to conduct a community survey annually.

This year, 500 people were surveyed, and 9 out of 10 residents said that the school district provided a good or excellent education.

When asked about the district’s most serious issue, large class sizes topped the list with 20 percent of residents providing such a response, up 50 percent from 2014 and 2015.

The student to teacher ratio was increased by two students as a cost-cutting measure in 2009-2010. Such an increase enabled 129 full-time equivalent positions to be slashed across the district, which amounted to more than $6.5 million in savings.

Cuts were required back then with declining enrollment and a state budget shortfall following the financial crisis.

“Our thought was that once the economy recovered (and) the tax coffers started seeing surpluses … we really believed that we’d be able to recover that class size over time,” Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann said.

Lawmakers have been more focused on adding new programs, like all-day kindergarten, than funding inflation to support existing programs and make recovery from the financial crisis possible, Heidemann said.

“It is frustrating,” he said. “I know I share that with the community.”

Though Heidemann points out a correlation between lack of funding and large class sizes, fewer community members view lack of funding as the most serious issue the district is facing this year. Two years ago, it was tied with large class sizes as the second most popular response, the first being “nothing.” Last year, only 9 percent said lack of funding was Anoka-Hennepin’s most serious issue, while class sizes held steady with 13 percent. This year, class sizes soared with a 20 percent response, while lack of funding dipped to 4 percent.

While the majority of residents surveyed said the reputation of Anoka-Hennepin was good or excellent, individuals listing the reputation as average leapt from 11 percent to 19 percent, and a follow-up question attributed the movement to large class sizes, according to Peter Leatherman with the Morris Leatherman Company. A dip in opinion about School Board, superintendent and administration performance was also tied to large class sizes.

Superintendent David Law is not surprised to see more residents citing large class sizes as the most serious issue in the district.

“I know it’s on the back of their mind,” Law said. With large class sizes, “it’s harder (for teachers) to be as personal and responsive.”

Law said he is “optimistic” that class sizes will decrease in the coming years, but “it will require some legislative support.”

Class sizes across the metro

The Metro Educational Cooperative Service Unit’s most recently published Annual Class Size Study, reporting class size patterns as of Oct. 1, 2015, includes data from 36 metro school districts.

Anoka-Hennepin’s kindergarten and first-grade class sizes were below average, but all other grade levels were above average.

Kindergarten classes in the 36 participating metro districts had an average of 21 students, and first-grade classes had an average of 22.1 students.

In Anoka-Hennepin, there were an average of 19.91 kindergarten students per class last year and 21.6 first-graders.

“Our board has made a commitment to have the early grades have lower class sizes,” Law said, calling kindergarten and first-grade numbers “attractive.”

Board guidelines call for 19 to 22 kindergartners per class, 20 to 23 first-graders, 24 to 27 second-graders, 26 to 29 third-graders, 27 to 30 fourth-graders and 27 to 32 fifth-graders.

As of October 2016, 34 elementary classes were below board range, 97 were within range and 13 were above range by one or two students, according to data shared by Mary Wolverton, associate superintendent for elementary schools, at a School Board work session this fall.

At middle and high schools, Anoka-Hennepin classes were above average in all subject areas, according to the Metro ECSU study.

Within Anoka-Hennepin middle schools, world language classes were farthest above state average with an average of 31.04 kids per class. The average across the 36 participating districts was 25.8 students, according to the study.

Anoka-Hennepin had the largest class sizes for high school language arts courses of all 36 participating districts. Classes ranged from 15 to 39 students with an average class of 32.04 students. On average across metro districts, 27.1 students were enrolled in each language arts course, according to the Metro ECSU study.

Music classes were the farthest above average at the high school level in Anoka-Hennepin with 47.33 in an average course in district and only 36.2 metro-wide.

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