When students feel seen and heard by their teacher, they’re more likely to feel comfortable in their classroom environment — and, as a result, more effectively engage in their learning. But when a classroom is filled with a large number of students, how do teachers find time to meet the needs of each child?
In classrooms that have 35 or more students, teachers often focus more on classroom management than on actual teaching, explains Jessica Kull, Principal and School Director at River Heights Academy, a PreK-8 tuition-free public charter school in Flat Rock. “A large class size does create extra work for the teacher, but that large class size also increases the possibility that students will slip through the cracks. Those who are more quiet won’t always get the attention they need.”
Parents who are selecting their child’s very first educational environment should choose a school where they and their child can develop a deep connection with their teacher, Kull says. “This will be a teacher that will engage with you frequently and who will give your child the individual attention they need,” she says.
In a time when larger class sizes dominate, especially at public schools, River Heights Academy has created a structure where the small class size is not the exception, but the norm. A member of the Distinctive Schools network of public charter schools in metro Detroit and Chicago, River Heights Academy serves kids from traditionally underserved backgrounds, educating students who go on to thrive in college, career and life.
“Typically, districts with smaller class sizes are in more affluent areas, so the opportunity to have smaller class sizes is important to us because it’s not typically available to our students,” Kull says.
Class size matters to personalized learning
In small classes, teachers at River Heights Academy are able to personalize learning for each student. “We really believe in personalizing education, and a small class size fits perfectly with this, because teachers are able to deeply know and understand each child,” Kull says. “When a teacher knows a child’s interests and what makes them tick, the education they can deliver is more personalized and productive.”
In PreK classrooms, where 4-year-old students and teachers engage in the evidence-based Great Start Readiness Program curriculum, a cap of 16 students and two teachers means the student-teacher ratio is lower than the state’s bar — and that makes a difference, says Kull.
“We know that it’s important at a young age to have one-on-one feedback, and attention is needed for each child to develop as a learner,” she says. As children grow through elementary grades, they can succeed in larger classroom environments, but they will more likely thrive when the class size remains low. To maximize each child’s experience, River Heights Academy aims to keep K-5 classrooms below 25 students to allow for personalized learning and individualized opportunities for each child.
Thriving in middle school
Class size continues to make a difference as students reach middle school. Even so, neighboring schools allow larger class sizes than River Heights Academy, says Kull. “Here, the majority of our classes are fewer than 25 students, because especially in middle school, it’s important for students to build relationships with their teachers and with one another for a small-community feel in these grades,” she says.
To enhance these middle school relationships, each River Heights Academy middle school student is assigned to a mentor teacher or staff member at the beginning of the school year. During weekly meetings throughout the year, the pair explores habits of success that the student can use to meet their goals. “A student might have a quiz coming up, so they’d talk about study skill strategies, or they might make sure the student is set up for success on a project,” Kull explains.
Some mentor-student relationships begin in sixth grade and continue throughout middle school and students and their mentors lean into individualized learner profiles, which are living documents that focus on student interests, preferences, and goals.
“These profiles are developed with the student and their parents at parent listening conferences at the start of each school year,” Kull says. “This is when parents share their hopes and dreams for their child, their child’s interests, their own concerns and something unique about their child. It’s all captured in this profile and they are built on throughout the year. This really helps teachers get to know their students deeply, right from the beginning of the year.”
Each student begins their learner profile in PreK or kindergarten, and it serves as a foundation for the learner-led, learner-focused, learner-demonstrated educational model that makes River Heights Academy unique. “Each learner articulates their needs, strengths, and interests — and their education delivery taps into each throughout the school year,” Kull says.
“Small class sizes have been a benchmark of our practices since we opened in 1996, and remained when we became River Heights Academy two years ago and accelerated our implementation of a personalized learning model for every student.”
Learn more about River Heights Academy at riverheightsacademy.org.