The goal of any school district is to educate its students and help them grow. The Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local School District is no different. Teachers and staff in the district know when it comes to education, smaller class sizes provide better learning environments in which teachers can provide more individualized help and support. The end goal is, of course, to increase student learning and growth.
That’s why when ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds were provided to districts during the pandemic, and the levy passed in May 2021, addressing some of the growing numbers in classrooms due to previous financial concerns, was the first order of business for the board and administration.
Students in certain classrooms – most notably at Bell Creek Intermediate and Stephen Bell Elementary – were seated wall-to-wall to accommodate the growing numbers as class sizes were averaging 27.3 students per room at Bell Creek and reached 32 and 33 in some instances.
The administration got to work hiring teachers for the next school year – filling some positions that had been eliminated through attrition (staff that either retired or left) – completing a majority of interviews in March and April, and bringing in highly-qualified teachers for the start of the 2022- 23 school year, thereby dropping class sizes down at Stephen Bell to an average of around 20 to 21 students, and about 23 to 24 students per classroom on average at Bell Creek.
“The district always strives to find the best teachers available to fill our open positions,” Superintendent Dr. Doug Cozad said. “We have a rigorous hiring process that involves multiple rounds of interviews with a team comprised of teachers, principals and administrators. We are lucky to usually have a big candidate pool, but getting into the hiring process even earlier than normal, we increased that pool of candidates even more. We found some great teachers to add to our already fantastic staff.”
Susan Seela, a language arts teacher now in her 42nd year, realized the difficulties she would be facing with 32 students in one of her classes last year.
“Nothing was going to change, nothing could be done about it,” Seela said regarding what she thought when she found out how many students she’d have in her class at BCI. “We just had to make it work. We were going to have to rework all of our systems.”
The veteran teacher did indeed adapt. She used the cafeteria and other spaces when she could, so students could spread out to work. She said one of the most difficult parts was navigating up and down the aisles and being able to work one-on-one with students in close proximity. Seela mentioned writing in her classes is very hands-on and one-on- one time is essential. With fewer students this school year, she is able to give more attention to individual students than she was in 2021-22.
Space also was a challenge for BCI math teacher Amanda Hof and Stephen Bell elementary teacher Kristine Beekman.
At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, space became of greater concern because of the need for students and teachers to distance themselves from one another due to COVID-19. All three teachers said their classrooms looked more like rooms from the 70s and 80s with straight rows of desks, instead of the desk setups that are more commonly used now, which promote group learning. While navigating the space in the rooms became difficult, teachers had to keep their sense of humor and persevere. Seela said she put the students at ease by nicknaming her class “The Sardine Can.”
“I didn’t want (the crowded conditions) to be a thing all year that they complained about, so we made a joke out of it instead,” she said. A round table and rug that are in Seela’s classroom this year, weren’t there the year prior. With fewer students in the room, they have space for everything now.
Hof had 33 students in one of her accelerated math classes last year. She, though, had a unique assignment.
Students test into her accelerated class throughout the early part of the school year. She started the year with 28, but it ticked up to 33 by the third week of school when additional accelerated students were identified.
The state mandates that once a student is qualified as accelerated, they must be taught as such, so there was no easy way to keep the class size down.
“It is hard to not only manage the classroom but teach to the individual needs,” Hof said. “You can’t do small group work as well or even one-on-one. And it can become loud quickly. I definitely have some students that need a more quiet environment and it can become overwhelming.”
Veteran kindergarten teacher Kristine Beekman said she had 26 students in her class last year but is down to a much more manageable 18 this year.
“These kindergarten students are 5, or 6 years old – some of them are 4 (early in the year) depending on their birthdays,” Beekman said. “Many of them haven’t been in school at all up to this point, so they don’t know the basic routines like being able to lineup. They need to be taught that. So in the early days we move as a herd, but we get it figured out. We (are able to) spend a lot more time on community building (with smaller class sizes).”
In contrast, Beekman said with a class of 18 this year, they had that feeling of safety and knowing what to expect from their teacher and classroom down in three to four weeks. Safety, in this case, has little to do with worrying about outside influences and has almost everything to do with the stranger who is now taking care of them and is expected to meet their needs.
“If the student's emotional needs aren’t being met – if they don’t feel safe, they aren’t learning,” Beekman said. “We start with (making the students feel safe) on Day 1. With 26 students in a classroom – I wouldn’t say it’s double the time, but I set a cutoff of six weeks.”
The district prides itself in not only creating safe learning environments but one that allows students to reach their highest potential. Class sizes are a key component to creating a more ideal learning environment.
Smaller class sizes can mean more small-group, more one-on-one instruction and more personalization of learning, thus increasing the chance to propel student learning, creating more well-rounded individuals, and even higher performance on test scores.
“Even with those larger class sizes the past few years, our teachers, staff, and administrators worked tirelessly to make the best of the situation,” Cozad said. “It is that type of mindset of when class sizes were bigger that are now being applied to smaller class sizes … going above and beyond for each and every one of our students.”