The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Solving the Problem of Over-Crowded Classrooms

on April 5, 2016

As I promised, today’s post is about dealing with the problems of class size that pervade many elementary schools, especially small ones. The story I tell is about the two schools where I was principal. Both had problems with uneven class sizes, but we solved them and some other important problems by making one big change.


Most of the time an elementary or middle school built to house 300 or more students can deal with having different numbers of students at each grade level. When a large number of students are enrolled in a particular grade, the school just divides them into manageable groups and places them in two or three separate classrooms. However, in a school designed for 200 or fewer students, dealing with a grade level group that is unexpectedly large is a major problem. In a small school there is only one classroom and one teacher for each grade, and there is no extra room or enough money to add more. What is ordinarily done in such a situation is to cram too many students into one classroom with a single teacher. And as long as the number of students in that particular group stays the same or grows larger, overcrowding will continue for them throughout the grades.

In both the small elementary schools where I was principal, there were uneven size classes when I came. In really large classrooms neither the students nor their teachers were getting a fair shake; but we just lived with it. The best I could do was to assign a full time aide to such classrooms. However, after a few years at my first school, my staff and I figured out a solution that promised us not only more reasonable class sizes, but also better situations for all students and teachers. We created mixed-grade classrooms at every grade but kindergarten, which was only a half-day program back then.

With such a structure we were not only able to control class sizes but also to place students where they could function best and to give each teacher a partner with whom to plan and work out problems. To assist teachers I made sure that those who taught the same grades had the same planning periods five days a week.

You may think that such a situation meant that a teacher had to teach two grades separately every day, but that was not the case. Teachers created flexible ability groups for reading and math and taught other subjects to their classes as a whole. Contrary to what you might expect, we found that there was a lot of student compatibility within a two-grade range. Most students, if asked, could not tell you which grade a fellow student was officially in.

But there were also other benefits. If there were kids in the same grade that did not get along with each other, we could place them in separate classrooms. We could also avoid holding back students who had not progressed well the previous year by grouping them appropriately in their new classroom and providing extra help. Sometimes it was better to have a child with the same teacher as last year, and at other times better to give that child a new teacher. We had a choice.

At my second school, which was even smaller than the first, I introduced the same idea to teachers early on and they bought into it. They even took on the role of explaining the new plan to parents. We adopted it, and it worked very well for the 12 years I was there. One year, by a stroke of good luck we got enough funding to hire an extra teacher and to create two K-1 classes. The benefits for kindergarteners were amazing. Usually, we had a number of young children who came to school without much in the way of social skills or an understanding of how to behave in a school environment. But when they were mixed with first graders who knew the ropes, they quickly learned what they were expected to do when in school.

First graders also benefitted from the structuring. In the afternoons when the kindergarteners had gone home for the day, classess were small enough for each student to get a lot of teacher attention in reading, writing, and math. They all made good progress.

My experience with mixed grade classrooms ended with my retirement in 2000. Although I am well aware that schooling has changed significantly since then, putting a major emphasis on testing and year by year student progress, I am still a firm believer that the basic premise of teaching is to accept each student where he is and move him or her as far as they can go. My hope, and that of many teachers I know, is that the “experts” and policymakers will soon learn that important lesson.

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