Overcrowded Classrooms Erode Student Opportunities and Support

Written by Amie Thompson

student sitting on chairs in front of chalkboard

The class of 2021 has received a short shrift.

It’s not their fault and it’s not their teachers’ fault.

It’s due to the lack of funding that has left teachers to divide their attention between too many kids, making it nearly impossible to keep them all engaged in school.

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My daughter, Hallie, happens to be a part of an unusually large class in Great Falls. At our elementary school, there were a third more students in her kindergarten classroom than our older daughter’s class.

As an active parent volunteer, I saw the difference those extra students made for teachers.

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It is harder to hold their attention; it’s harder to engage them; and quite honestly, it’s harder to make a one-on-one connection with every student.

In the end, it’s harder to keep them in school.

Though Hallie’s class was a bit of an anomaly, overcrowded classrooms are now the norm.

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Reading last Sunday’s front-page Great Falls Tribune article by Enya Spicer on overcrowded classrooms makes me worry about Great Falls’ future.

If we don’t step up and help fund our schools, our dropout rate will climb, our community will suffer.

Through the years, overcrowding took its toll on the class of 2021. In third grade the classes were combined and Hallie’s room jumped to 27 kids.

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By then, they were losing opportunities my older daughter’s class had. I remember Hallie coming home upset because she didn’t get to go on a field trip her sister got to go on.

They just didn’t have the resources to take that many kids.

It wasn’t the large number alone, though. By third grade, this group had a reputation. They were a class full of kids with severe discipline issues, and a large number of kids – not always the same ones – who didn’t perform at grade level.

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If you’ve ever helped out in a classroom, you know there is a pretty large percentage of kids that really need to find a connection with someone who will believe in them.

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The majority of kids come from broken homes.

(My parents split when I was in sixth grade. It doesn’t matter how amicable the split; it affects the children.) Some of these kids’ parents were in prison. One had both parents in prison and he was being raised by his great-grandparents.

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I thought the problems would become less noticeable when half the city’s elementary classes came together at East Middle School, but I was wrong.

I’ll never forget having conversation after conversation with my friends with incoming seventh graders who said their child’s classrooms had a similar makeup.

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The cuts the district had to make over the past ten years, really caught up with this class two years ago when they entered high school. No longer was there enough money to fund “teams,” which was a great entry point for 14-year-olds.

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Three teams of core teachers taught close to 30 percent of the class. They were able to connect to the young teens and the teachers could work as a group to keep students on track.

These “Freshman Academies” ended in 2015-2016 at CMR and the next year at GFH when each school lost 2.5 teachers.

But for the class of 2021, it was more overloaded classrooms.

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I don’t think it’s a leap to say that these crowded classrooms contributed to many of Hallie’s classmates’ decisions to drop out of school. Unfortunately, there are not dropout statistics for this group of juniors at Great Falls High yet, but I know several of my daughter’s classmates have dropped out.

The class started 420 strong as freshman. Entering junior year, there are only 335.

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Dropout numbers are not an exact science until after graduation, as numbers can be affected by families moving, transferring high schools or true dropouts.  But there’s no question that the timeframe of larger class sizes coincides with increased dropouts.

However, when kids drop out, it is not just a parent issue or a school issue. It is a community issue.

High school dropouts earn less money than those with a diploma and are more likely to require government assistance.

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High school dropouts commit 75 percent of crimes in our country.

Great Falls Public Schools goes above and beyond to meet kids where they are and guide them to become productive members of our community.

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I’m talking about Saturday School, the many trade classes, and the Life Skills Program at Paris Education Center, to name a few.

But some essential programs that offered the connection for vulnerable students have been cut, like Freshman Academy, Hip hop and Primary level Summer School.

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But, if those students are not in their desks, there is little anyone can do to support their future.

And for this mom, who volunteered in these kids’ classrooms and knew them personally as little people, it’s heartbreaking to hear that another one of them has dropped out.

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