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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 04 2013

Family income may affect students' performance in Fargo

FARGO – Small class sizes and small schools may improve some students’ grades, but in Fargo’s 14 public elementary schools, the incomes of families attending the school appear to have a greater correlation to how kids perform on the state’s standardized tests than class or school sizes.

Advocates for small, neighborhood schools point to the performance of students at Roosevelt Elementary in 2012-13 as proof that small schools boost grades and should be kept open.

Third- through fifth-graders at Roosevelt taking the North Dakota State Assessment posted scores that made the school one of two in Fargo to meet annual yearly progress grade-level standards in math and reading required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“School size, as far as population, is really the key thing for us, and why we see the importance of neighborhood schools as so critical,” said Ken Enockson, a member of the Alliance for Neighborhood Schools.

A glance at elementary school class sizes in the 2012-13 school year shows – with few exceptions – that the district has closely stuck to a standard of 21 students or fewer per room. The districtwide average is 20.5 students per elementary class.

School size might not have a great effect, either.

The other school in Fargo that made AYP is Longfellow Elementary, which had 344 students last year, more than twice as many as Roosevelt’s 142.

Roosevelt has classes of 18, 19 and 20 students in third grade, and two classes each in fourth and fifth grades with 20 to 23 students in each.

Longfellow had three classes each in third and fourth grades, with 19 to 22 students each. The school had two classes of fifth-graders with 25 students each.

Elementary schools with some of the smallest class sizes failed to make AYP. That includes McKinley with 15 students each in two third- and two fourth- grade rooms, and Madison with two classes of 13 each in fourth grade.

It’s when each elementary school’s percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches is added to the mix that a stronger correlation is seen in test scores.

The tie between poverty and student achievement has long been studied, Assistant Superintendent Bob Grosz said.

But he cautions that it’s not the only variable that can affect a school’s student test scores. Other factors – the number of special education students or English Language Learners – can affect those scores, he said.

“That (poverty) is one of the factors that impacts student performance,” Grosz said. But “each student is an individual and each student has unique needs.”

The federal free and reduced-price lunch program helps ensure that students from low-income families get nutritious meals. It is also one measure used by the federal government to determine the relative wealth or poverty of an area.

At Longfellow school, 6.8 percent of students get free or reduced-price lunches. There, 89.35 percent of students hit the grade-level proficiency target for reading and 95 percent in math.

Roosevelt had significantly higher numbers of children getting free and reduced lunches at 29.4 percent. But that’s not far off the district average of 26 percent. At Roosevelt, 90.91 percent of children hit the reading target, and 95 percent did so in math.

Other schools similar in size to Roosevelt, McKinley and Madison, did not do nearly as well.

At McKinley, where 54.7 percent of 179 students get free and reduced lunches, 83.3 percent of students met grade-level standards in reading, and 92.21 percent in math.

At Madison, where 79.3 percent of the 180 students get free and reduced lunches, 64.74 met grade-level standards for reading, and 83.15 in math.

Students at much larger schools than McKinley or Madison performed as well or better on the state tests.

Centennial Elementary, where 18.7 percent of the 638 students get free or reduced-price lunch, had 80.1 percent of students meet grade-level reading targets, and 92.23 percent hit the math standard.

Bennett Elementary, where 12.1 percent of the 612 students get free or reduced lunch, had 82.2 percent of students meet grade-level reading targets, and 92.36 percent hit the math standard.

More important than class sizes may be the number of sections in each grade in a school, Grosz said.

If there are too few sections, it is hard to create “professional learning communities” for teachers to share ideas about what works and what doesn’t in teaching a group of students,” he said.

“In smaller buildings, it’s more difficult to have that collaborative conversation,” Grosz said.

McKinley, a school that was recently identified by School Board members as a building that could be repurposed and its students sent to other schools – such as Longfellow and Washington – is one of the smallest standalone schools in the district.

McKinley had one classroom of fifth-graders, and two classrooms in the rest of the grades last year.

There can also be too many sections. At crowded Kennedy in the district’s southwest, there were seven sections of kindergarten in 2012-13.

Growth at Kennedy outstripped an addition and prompted the School Board to start sending younger students from the Bluemont Lakes area to the Eagles Center this fall.

Balancing class sizes and sections is meant to provide educational equity for students throughout the district, Grosz said.

School Board President Dinah Goldenberg said the number of classrooms in each school has been more of a concern for the board.

“Our goal is to create an environment where there are multiple sections in each grade,” she said.

That idea helped drive the pairing of Clara Barton and Hawthorne schools south of Main Avenue, and Horace Mann and Roosevelt north of Main. The move created more sections per grade and evened out class sizes between the buildings than when the schools stood as separate entities.

Merrill Piepkorn, president of the Horace Mann Neighborhood Association, said people have come to like the paired schools concept.

“It seems to work. And I think the School Board also sees the value of the efficiency of the paired schools,” Piepkorn said.

Enockson said he hopes the School Board will come to embrace the smaller is better philosophy, rather than focusing on building schools with four or five sections in each grade.

“Essentially, what we’re concerned with is this need to reach economies of scale, where essentially you’re warehousing hundreds and hundreds of kids,” Enockson said. “The critical thing for us is, we see value of the schools in the sizes that they are in.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583