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NC: Smaller classes benefit Burke County students


Young students in Burke County, N.C., have benefited from smaller classes. (Courtesy Burke County Schools)

Summary: Reducing class size has helped this school district stay on track, even when its student demographic changed with more students speaking English as a second language and more students qualifying for free- and reduced-priced lunch. How did the district do it? By involving the school board and community right from the start. Read this story to see how everyone worked together on a feasibility study, finding funding, and securing extra classroom space, while at the same time helping to increase student test scores.

For one rural North Carolina school district, class size reduction in the early grades has had a positive influence on student achievement. The effort to reduce class size in Burke County began 13 years ago when former Elementary School Director Wayne Honeycutt and former Superintendent Carlos Hicks determined there was a need for such a bold move in the early grades.

Recalled current Superintendent David Burleson, “At that time, teacher–student ratios in 1st–3rd grades averaged 24 students per teacher.” Research indicated that reducing class size to fewer than 18 students per teacher could help improve student achievement, he said.

Before making the change, the district formed a feasibility committee to study the issue. The committee had several tasks:

  • Examine research on class size and student achievement.
  • Evaluate classroom space within the district.
  • Determine faculty and staff needs.

After completing its work, the committee recommended that the district first establish a reduced class size pilot program for 1st graders, beginning with the 1991-1992

District characteristics
Name: Burke County SD
State: NC
Type: Rural
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 14,803
Students per teacher: n.a.

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 41.5%
English language learners: 8.3%
Students with disabilities: 16.1%
White: 77.8%
Black: 8.7%
Hispanic: 4.3%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 9.1%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.2%
Other: n.a.
Source: SchoolMatters.com
school year. The success of the pilot spurred the district to begin pilot programs at the 2nd and 3rd grade levels. Today, all 1st–3rd graders in the district attend classes that are smaller, with only 15 students per teacher, Burleson said.

The district also saw another change take place during this same period: The demographics of the school district changed dramatically. Students speaking English as a second language rose from “almost non-existent” to 15 percent of the student body. The percent of students on free and reduced lunch also increased by 50 percent, to 58 percent at the elementary school level.

The good news is that test scores have increased in the district, in spite of the changing student demographic. Today, 90 percent of 3rd–8th graders achieve proficiency on standardized tests, Burleson said. He added that the district is making Adequate Yearly Progress in meeting No Child Left Behind requirements. Another note of good news is the studies that show teachers with fewer students spend six percent more time on instruction than teachers in traditional size classrooms.

The smaller classes are very popular in the district. Teachers, administrators, students, and parents all support the program. “Parents would revolt if we tried to do away with reduced class size,” Burleson says. “There are more opportunities for parents to be involved in the schools, and because of reduced class size, there is 99 percent participation in parent-teacher conferences.”

The program was funded through a combination of state, national, and local funds. The original funding came from contingency funds within the district’s operating budget. With the permission of the state legislature, the district also eliminated teacher assistant positions in the lower grades (1st–3rd) and used those funds for its reduced class size program. The district also used federal class size reduction funds and low-wealth district funds to finance the program.

Districts interested in reducing class size should include the community from the onset, which Burke County did by involving the community in the initial feasibility study, Burleson said. He also notes that districts should start with pilot programs and teachers in these programs should receive the professional development necessary to individualize instruction.

In Burke County, the school board was also involved from the start. School board members were active in funding the program and gathering support from the community. Today, both school board members and administrators monitor the program.

Burleson says that when the class sizes were reduced, the biggest problem the district faced was finding funds for the additional space required. Burke County used a combination of methods to gain the space, including:

  • a local one-cent sales tax for school expansion;
  • a state bond; and
  • mobile units.

Classroom space was also gained when the district, in 1991, reconfigured its junior high by turning it into a middle school.

With the hurdle of reducing class size in the lower grades surpassed, the overall program has become so successful that Burke County is looking into using Title I funds to reduce class size at the 4th and 5th grade levels. “The best thing to come out of this is that students are treated as individuals,” Burleson said. “Teachers get to really know their students, have the time to individualize lessons, and are better able to meet individual student’s needs. Students most at risk have benefited the most from reduced class size.”

Lessons learned
  •  Involve the community right from the start in researching and planning.
  •  Start with a pilot program.
  •  Provide teachers with professional development to help them make the most of smaller classes by individualizing instruction.
  •  School board members play a key role in securing funding and garnering support from the community.


David Burleson, Superintendent
Burke County Public Schools
700 East Parker Road
Morganton, NC 28680
Phone: (828) 439-4310
E-mail: dburleso@burke.k12.nc.us 


Posted: March 31, 2006

©2006 Center for Public Education

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