It's all about economics when it comes to class sizes at Ticonderoga Central School.

They are rising like bad news in the wake of the Great Recession.

Ticonderoga is among several districts in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties that laid off teachers due to soaring expenditures and dwindling revenues, which subsequently raised class sizes.

The impact of class-size increases isn't disastrous locally, but at the very least, economics is reversing a trend of the last few decades to have fewer kids per class to bolster academic achievement.

STAR STUDY

"I think there is a benefit to smaller class sizes," said Ticonderoga Central School Superintendent John C. McDonald Jr.

That benefit increases when factoring in inclusion, with a wide range of student abilities; disadvantaged children; and the increasing rigor of a mandated curriculum.

The movement to shrink class sizes extends back decades.

The Student Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR study, conducted in Tennessee during the late 1980s, found that smaller class sizes in the early grades increased student achievement.

Studies in Wisconsin and elsewhere echoed those findings, while research in several states, including California, found that smaller class sizes resulted in academic gains and lower dropout rates in the middle and upper grades.

ELEMENTARY IMPACT

But, overall, class-size reduction appears to have the biggest positive impact on disadvantaged students in the early grades.

"There is plenty of research indicating that, up to a certain point, small class sizes are beneficial to students," said Beekmantown Central School Superintendent Scott Amo.

Plattsburgh City School District prefers smaller classes for its youngest students, though the numbers can fluctuate based on summer enrollments, transfers and budget cuts.

The district strives to balance classes between the Bailey/Oak side of the city and Momot Elementary in the South End.

"It would be illogical and counter-educational for the district to maintain excessive class sizes in one building and leave another undersized," said Plattsburgh City School Superintendent James "Jake" Short.

Plattsburgh expects elementary classes to range from 18 to 24 students for the 2011-12 school year.

TEACHERS

In recent decades, at least 24 states have passed legislation to limit student numbers per class.

Per-pupil spending increased 58 percent over the last 20 years, while the average student-to-teacher ratio for public schools dropped by 21 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some experts argue that the impact of small class sizes on student success has been exaggerated and that providing a quality teacher is more cost effective.

Yet, the U.S. Education Department analyzed the academic progress of students in 2,561 schools nationwide and found that smaller class sizes, not school size or teacher qualifications, increased student achievement.

LAYOFFS

It may be a moot point, as school districts across the nation experience class-size increases because of budget cuts and teacher layoffs. At the beginning of this past school year, nearly 60,000 teachers were laid off across the country.

The American Association of School Administrators found that in the 2010-11 school year, 48 percent of America's school districts handed teachers pink slips. As a result, 57 percent of districts increased their average class sizes this year, and 65 percent anticipate doing so next year.

BRACING FOR CHANGE

"This is going to have an impact on our classrooms," said AuSable Valley Central School Superintendent Paul Savage.

AVCS, faced with a $2.4 million budget deficit due to a cut in state aid and rising costs in energy, health care, special education and retirement contributions, laid off 19 faculty and staff members.

The budget still included a nearly 7-percent increase in the tax levy and an estimated $1 more on the tax rate per $1,000 of assessed property value.

"We are going to see our class sizes increase, pretty much across the board," said McDonald. "It certainly could have an impact. We are seeing more special-needs kids coming in, and that impacts the amount of time the teacher devotes to all students."

FEWER AIDES

Teachers try to address different ability levels within the classroom, but it is not easy.

Ticonderoga will work on teaching strategies through professional development, but money for such training is also vanishing with budget cuts.

"In addition to increasing class sizes, we are cutting aides and assistants, both of which have been helpful dealing with some of the high-needs students in classrooms," McDonald said.

Ticonderoga is experiencing a rise in autistic children, with varying ability levels entering the district.

DIFFICULT DIRECTION

Malone Central School's class sizes are hardly tolerable, said Superintendent Wayne Walbridge.

"If, in another year, the budget is like this one was, I don't know what will happen."

Malone's 2011-12 spending plan included a $2.8 million state-aid reduction and cost increases in retirement, energy and health insurance, as well as a tax-levy increase.

The district eliminated three teaching assistants, 16 support staff, 12 teachers and two BOCES positions. K-2 classes are in the high teens, grades 3 to 5 in the mid 20s, and secondary-school class sizes are climbing.

It's impacting the program, and at some point, Walbridge said, the balloon will explode and students will not reach state and federal benchmarks.

"They keep raising the bar and yet continue to not provide the support schools need financially," he said.

"I don't think they really understand what is going on in schools."

Email Stephen Bartlett at: sbartlett@pressrepublican.com

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