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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

August 29, 2014 at 5:00 AM

How to improve schools? Some students say: Lower class size

Over six days in the past few weeks, 13 high school students, about to enter 12th grade, tackled a tough question: Is education equitable in Seattle, and if it’s not, why?

The students are all part of the prestigious Rainier Scholars program, selected in part because most hope to be the first in their families to attend college. From the time they’re in middle school, the program offers participants a big dose of academic enrichment, along with leadership training and social-emotional support.

Rainier Scholars Cohort VII

Students in Cohort VII in the Rainier Scholars program, who spent a half-dozen days this summer researching educational equity in Seattle. Photos courtesy of Rainier Scholars.

When it came time to present their findings,  the students clicked through Power Points full of statistics — everything from data showing that Ballard High’s PTA often raises more in one year than Franklin High does in 10, to maps showing how far students from low-income neighborhoods have to travel if they want to attend many of the city’s best-performing schools.

Afterward, they talked about what they would do to ease the inequities they identified. They acknowledged that the solution may be bigger than what schools alone can do.

But if they could do one thing to change public schools to improve equity? They talked about offering more Advanced Placement and other rigorous classes. More alternative schools closer to the city’s low-income neighborhoods. And, most of all, lowering the number of students per class.

Kalia Hendricks, for example, said when she was in middle school, classes were so big that one teacher read her name off a chart all year — and always mispronounced it.

Jalen Wright, now at Seattle’s private Lakeside School, said his classes have, at most , 18 students — nearly half of what they used to be in his public middle school.

“You can just connect with your teachers a lot more,” he said.

Treon Triggs, now at University Prep, remembered standing in line in one of his middle school classes to get his questions answered, and time would always run out before the teacher reached all those students. Now, he said, his teachers always get to everyone.

Smaller classes, the students said, also allow teachers to give them better feedback about their work, and provide more individualized instruction.

The national debate over the value of lowering class sizes is often a heated one. And in November, Washington state residents be voting on Initiative 1351, which proposes lowering public school class sizes in all grades, down to  just 15 for the youngest students.  The price tag for hiring staff and adding more classrooms would run in the billions.

But to the Rainier Scholars students — most of whom have been in small classes in private high schools and larger ones in public middle schools — small has a lot of advantages.

Comments | More in News | Topics: class size, Rainier Scholars

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