CHESTER -- Chester County's class sizes will increase next school year regardless of whether the school district closes Great Falls' middle and high schools, district officials said Wednesday.
But that hike would be more noticeable in consolidated schools.
"What people are used to in smaller schools might be a little higher," said Karen Kerr, the district's director of middle and secondary instruction. "But we don't want anybody to be higher than 25 to 1, unless it's just necessary."
A 25 to 1 student-teacher ratio is district officials' goal for core classes in grades four to 12 next school year. For students in grades four and five, that ratio is up from 22 to 1. For students in grades six to 12, it's up from 23 to 1.
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Student-teacher ratios vary widely depending on grade level and subject matter. For example, a middle school special education class might serve four students while a core high school English class might have 29.
"It would be wonderful, in a perfect world, to be able to keep classes at 12 (students)," Kerr said.
But that's not the case.
South Carolina has carved roughly $334 million from public education since July as state revenue dwindles. Chester County schools have lost more than $2 million in state funding.
School board members say state budget cuts have forced them to consider merging Great Falls middle and high schools with Lewisville schools and combining Chester Park's three elementary schools into two.
Should the school board consolidate all the schools under consideration, the move would eliminate 73 positions, thus increasing the student-teacher ratio.
But if the board doesn't consolidate, Kerr said, a hiring freeze coupled with the vacancies of those employees who choose not to return or aren't asked to come back will make classes larger.
Many parents fear consolidating the schools will lead to overcrowding, and their children's education will suffer if kids are stuffed into larger classes.
But district officials contend class sizes are going up either way, though they won't increase drastically and will still be well within state requirements.
"There are not going to be 50 people in a classroom," Kerr said. "Probably not even 30."
The increases Chester County has proposed shouldn't have much of an impact on student achievement, said Mark Mitchell, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Winthrop University.
"It would surprise me a great deal if you saw any difference," he said.
Small classes don't necessarily mean greater student achievement, Mitchell said.
While students get more individual attention in small schools, Mitchell said, larger schools can offer more programs. And the older students get, the less impact class size has on them.
Consolidation, he said, has its benefits.
"Student achievement-wise, eventually it will get better," he said of merging schools. "It's much better financially. And let's face it: The objective is to make a better learning situation and do it for less money."
This transition will still be painful, he said. The greatest challenge for consolidating schools won't be academic, but emotional.
"I understand where the small towns are coming from," he said. "There's a lot of loyalty toward those schools. The people that reside there, I would say the majority of them are graduates of those schools. So consequently, their ownership is very high. The hard part administratively or leadership-wise is making sure that when you go through the consolidation that those folks are well represented and that they have a voice in the way that things are going to work."
School board leaders will meet with Great Falls residents tonight to talk about the possible merger with Lewisville.
While most board members haven't taken a public position on consolidation, Dr. Laurens Fort Jr. has.
"Absolutely against it," said Fort, who lives in Great Falls. "It would be a terrible tragedy for the town of Great Falls. "It would also be a tragedy for Lewisville because it's going to completely alter the complexion of the schools there."
Tonight's forum begins at 7 p.m. inside the Great Falls Middle School gym.
By the numbers
Chester County school officials project class sizes will increase next school year, regardless of whether the district combines Great Falls middle and high schools with those in Lewisville.
These are student-teacher ratios in core subjects for 2007 (2008 numbers are not yet available):
-- Great Falls High School: 21 to 1
-- Lewisville High School: 26 to 1
-- Great Falls Middle School: 19 to 1
-- Lewisville Middle School: 20 to 1
--Chester County school district: 20 to 1
These are the district-wide student-teacher ratios school officials tried not to exceed this year:
-- Kindergarten: 23 to 1
-- Grades 1-3: 19 to 1
-- Grades 4-5: 22 to 1
-- Grades 6-12: 23 to 1 (core subjects)
These are the student-teacher ratios district officials hope not to exceed next school year:
-- Kindergarten: 23 to 1
-- Grades 1-3: 21 to 1
-- All other grades: 25 to 1 (core subjects)
--Sources: S.C. Department of Education, Chester County school district