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Small classes can be a challenge too

--- As public schools struggle with growing class sizes, parochial schools often face the opposite problem

(Published Sept. 13, 2007, 4:12 p.m.)

Ken White is the principal of St. Paul's Lutheran School in East Troy. He is also the technology coordinator. And the soccer coach. And the eighth grade teacher. And the seventh grade teacher.

With only 79 students in grades K-8, St. Paul's uses a different strategy than East Troy public schools. In order to work with their small amount of students, each of St. Paul's five teachers, with the exception of the kindergarten teacher, instructs two grades in one classroom.

 "Parents who are new to our school, if they've never encountered a school like this before, wonder, 'How in the world do you do this?'" said White, who had four students in his eighth grade class last year. "But once they see what we're doing, they love it."

Several parochial schools in Walworth County combine two or more of their tiny grades in one classroom instead of teaching them separately. They do it for the same reason that public schools once commonly did: practicality.

The teacher in a combined classroom typically teaches certain subjects, including language, history, and art, to both classes at the same time. Other subjects, such as math, are taught to one class while the other works on homework and vice versa.

White claims organizing a classroom this way has positive side effects.

"For an eighth grade student who maybe didn't quite catch it in seventh grade, he or she has a chance to hear it over again," he said. "Or for the advanced seventh grade student, they get to hear the eighth grade lesson, and maybe it intrigues them. It gets them looking forward to eighth grade."

St. Patrick's School in Elkhorn experimented with one combined class when the numbers in two classes got exceptionally low. The older of these two classes graduated last year with five students; the younger class eventually became so small that it was eliminated altogether after the fifth grade.

Jeanne Korosec, whose daughter was part of the younger class, still considers the combined class a primarily positive experience.

"For the lower grades it was good," she said, "but then for the last grade-"

"It got hard," interjected her daughter, Annie.

"For instance," continued Jeanne, "she was working in a sixth grade social studies book, but she was a fifth grader who needed to be in a fifth grade book."

St. Patrick's average class size is now about 14, and, although they do have some classes on the small side, their current strategy is to teach them separately.

Julie Muellenbach, the principal of St. Patrick's, taught literature, religion and science to last year's five-student eighth grade class.

She said she preferred teaching a smaller class.

 "You really got to know your students," Muellenbach said. "You could do so much with that group of kids that you would never be able to do with 25 kids in your classroom. I mean, we went to the kitchen and we made jam that went with one of our stories ... It's those kinds of things that you can do that you can't do when you have a large group-the hands on, the extra fun learning activities."

According to Jeffrey Barnett, dean of UW-Whitewater's College of Education, there are advantages and disadvantages to both combining classes and teaching super-small classes.

"There's a certain amount of energy in a class," he said. "It's possible if the class is too small you'll lose some of that energy."

 For instance, in a discussion with 20 children there might be more idea flow than in a discussion with six kids.

On the other hand, Barnett said, it's widely accepted that a smaller class size is conducive to individualized time for each student and many public schools are currently trying to reduce their class sizes.

Combining smaller classes, depending on the teacher, might also have some disadvantages, he said.

"I think the big risk is dividing the teacher's attention" Barnett said. "It puts a lot of pressure on a teacher, because if they're teaching more than one grade they are going to have different levels of instruction. While they're working with one group, they have to plan very carefully to make sure the other group is doing something productive."

However, teacher aides can help this situation by working with the group that the teacher is not, and the benefit of hearing lessons from other grades does exist.

While White admits that teaching more than one grade in a classroom is challenging, he said he likes it that way.

"Having never taught just one grade, I don't know what that would be like," he said. "I know it's easier to teach three than four and easier to teach two than three. But it's very rewarding. You get to see the children progress for a few years ... at a typical school you only see them for one year."

According to White and Muellenbach, their respective strategies have been effective in their schools. Both principals said their schools' test scores show their students perform at a level equal or better than public schools in the area.

"I think our academics are as strong as the public schools," Muellenbach said. "We see how our graduates from the grade school have done in high school. They're placed on honor roles. They're valedictorians or salutatorians of their classes."

Being a smaller school is something principals at both schools consider to be more of a blessing than a curse. Forming buddy systems between older and younger children, communicating with staff members more frequently and creating a closer community are just a few of the capabilities the principals attributed to the small sizes of their schools.

And, no matter how small they are, these parochial schools don't expect their role to be abolished anytime soon.

 "I think there's a desire by parents to have them," Muellenbach said. "There's definitely a desire by parishes to have them. A parochial school is part of the parish community, part of parish life."

Although she enrolled Annie in a public school after her class was eliminated, Korosec remains one parent with this desire. Her youngest daughter is one of nine students who just started kindergarten at St. Patrick's.

"Sometimes I think, 'Am I doing the right thing?'" she said of her decision to enroll her children at St. Patrick's. "But I prayed about it I talked with my husband about it, and we just felt, inside, that it was right. I know I've made the right decisions. My kids are going back."

The author, a student at Northwestern University, is from Elkhorn.

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