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FOCUS ON GRANTS: Small English Classes, Big Rewards for Students

By May 13, 2013eNews

By Leanne Huebner, Posted March 13, 2013

For more than two decades, Mira Costa High School students have enjoyed the engaging opportunity to embrace literature or to improve prose under the tutelage of English teacher Pam Jenning.  When asked what inspired her to teach English, Ms. Jenning responds simply –“Everything.”  She continues eloquently, “The heartbreaking beauty of story, the power and liberation of language, and the opportunity to help students find their own writing voices.”

Ms. Jenning is one of the teachers who enable — as well as one of the biggest proponents of — small English classes within MBUSD for grades six through nine.  Thanks to parent donations, MBEF grants $245,000 each year to ensure the program remains for students at MBMS and MCHS.

“The ninth grade low class size program is the foundation of Mira Costa’s English instructional program. It allows us to focus on students more individually, increase the length, complexity and frequency of writing assignments, and engage the class in activities that foster the growth of higher-order thinking skills,” shares Ms. Jenning.

Research shows rewards both short-term and long-term

The benefits of smaller classes have been extensively studied over the last several decades.  One well regarded 1999 research study completed by Eastern Michigan University Professor Charles Achilles, reviewed extensive findings on class size and student success in the public schools of Tennessee.  His study reported that students definitively benefited from smaller classes in areas such as student engagement, development of basic skills as well as increased teachers’ morale.

A 2012 White House Report, Investing in Our Future:  Returning Teachers to the Classroom, stated “substantial evidence exists that smaller class sizes – especially in the early years – produce better outcomes for students.”  A 2009 study published in Journal of Human Resources concluded that California’s billion-dollar class-size-reduction program suggested that achievement increased in early grades across all demographic groups.

And the impact may be even more long lasting than once anticipated.  One Dynarski/Schanzenbach study concluded that investment in small classes in childhood actually significantly impacted one’s chances at obtaining a college degree, years later.

The difference might be even more pronounced in English.  The National Counsel of Teachers of English’s top recommendation for increasing quality of literacy education is reducing the class size, and thus lowering the workload on English teachers.   Like many peers in other disciplines, English teachers work extensive hours outside of school to grade papers.  Fewer students lessen time needed to grade papers properly — which can take up to twenty minutes per paper.

Within MBUSD, the results are solid in favor of continued small classes.   Over 90% of sixth to ninth graders score advanced or proficient in English Language Arts, according to the District’s 2012 STAR test results.

The middle years matter too   

“The true benefit is more individualized attention to each student,” shares Rachel Thomas, English teacher at Manhattan Beach Middle School.  “Smaller class sizes enable our success with our new Writer’s Workshop and make it possible to teach during, not after, the writing process.  Teachers can walk around the room, read over shoulders, discuss writing with student and help kids with the writing process.”

(Last fall, MBUSD officially implemented Writer’s Workshop, a Columbia University based program.)

Ms. Thomas demonstrates that “class size impacts what types of activities we choose in the classroom because of physical space and logistics.”   For instance, her middle school classes have been able to conduct Socratic Seminars, a process where groups of students — ideally a maximum of 12 students — lead discussions with other students.  If the group is too big, management issues arise like more reserved students not contributing successfully in such a forum.  The smaller the class, the more successful these seminars can be for all.

Many teachers also feel that smaller class sizes can help teachers identify problems before students falter.  For instance, five less kids in a class means a whole section less at MBMS.   The intimacy provided by low class sizes means that the teacher can intervene quickly when a student struggles, resulting in fewer casualties of the difficult transition from middle to high school.  Thus, fewer students experience underachievement and/or alienation from the entire educational process.

Despite pending MBUSD budget cuts, MBEF at the current time plans to maintain its grants to keep the size advantage for English from sixth through ninth grade.  “Maintaining low class sizes in English courses is critical to the success of our students throughout high school, at college and in the workplace,” shares Ms. Jenning.  “Class size in the English program is the central component of the learning environment and has far reaching effects for today and the future.”

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