District 65 administrators recommended that the School Board increase class size guidelines by five students for kindergarten through fifth grades at a Feb. 27 meeting of the Policy Committee of the Board. The increase would be phased in over two years, with an increase of three students in FY’18 (the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018) and five students in FY’19.

The class size guidelines would increase only if the District’s operating referendum does not pass in the April 4 election, and the District is required to make cuts totaling $5.1 million for FY’18 to balance its budget. It is thus a “contingency plan,” said Peter Godard, Chief Officer of Research, Assessment and Data.

Mr. Godard said he was given a target to save $1.5 million by increasing class size guidelines. If the referendum does not pass, this would be one of a number of changes the District would need to make to achieve the $5.1 million in savings in FY’18. The District would then need to make a little more than $19 million in cuts in the next seven years.

Financial Impact

Mr. Godard said if the class-size guidelines are increased by five students, the class size guidelines for planning purposes would be as follows:

• kindergarten (28 students),

• 1st grade (30 students),

• 2nd grade (30 students),

• 3rd grade (31 students),

• 4th grade (32 students), and

• 5th grade (32 students).

In line with past practice, the District would allow enrollment to exceed the guidelines by two students, said Mr. Godard. If enrollment in a classroom exceeds the guidelines by twp students, the District would allocate an additional teacher or a teacher’s aide to the classroom, he said.

Mr. Godard said the District would continue to attempt to equalize class sizes across schools when granting admissions to magnet schools or in granting permissive transfers. For example, if a kindergartner’s attendance-area school is projected to have a relatively large kindergarten classes that would be a factor in deciding whether to accept that kindergartner into a magnet school or to grant that student a permissive transfer.

If class-size guidelines were increased by three students, Mr. Godard estimated that the District could eliminate a total of nine classrooms, at a savings of $560,000 per year. If the guidelines were increased by five students, the District could eliminate 19 classrooms, at a total savings of $1,360,000 per year.

Impact on Actual Class Size

While the class size guidelines would increase to the high 20s or low 30s, the actual average class sizes would be lower than the guidelines – at least for a few years. 

For example, at first grade, the current class size guideline is 25 students, and the actual average class size is 21.8 students. If the class size guideline increased to 30 students, the District projects that actual average class size at first grade would increase to 25.4 students.

The table below shows in column (1) the actual average class size for each grade level using current class-size guidelines, and shows in column (2) the estimated actual class size for each grade level if the current class-size guidelines were increased by five students.

Estimated Actual Average Class
 Sizes Using (1) Current and (2)
 Increased Class-Size Guidelines

             (1)       (2)
    K       21.5     22.3
    1st    21.8      25.4
    2nd   20.5      24.0
    3rd    21.0      23.7
    4th    21.6      26.4
    5th    23.8      23.8

Mr. Godard told the RoundTable, “The change in average [actual] class size is smaller than the change in guidelines because our policy of enrollment by attendance area limits our ability to equalize class sizes across schools. For example, if we had a school with 50 students in grade four and two teachers, we would have to keep two sections and have an average class size of 25. In contrast, if we had a school with 60 students in grade four and three teachers, we could reduce to two sections and have an average class size of 30.”

Mr. Godard added that if class size guidelines are increased by five students, the average class sizes would look like what is shown in the table, but there would be fluctuation between schools. He said, “[M]any classes will be larger and some would be as high as 30 in kindergarten and 34 in fifth grade.”

Going forward, the District would be looking at ways to maximize enrollment in all classrooms across the District, such as through an “open enrollment” method, Mr. Godard said. “Over time, this will likely result in the average class size falling closer to the class size guideline.”

Alternatives Considered

Mr. Godard said he considered an “open enrollment” policy, under which families of incoming kindergartners would rank the top five District schools they would like their children to attend. A computer program would then assign students to a school, based on their ranking, giving preference to children with a sibling in their selected school and to children living in the attendance area of their selected school, and taking into account transportation costs.

In one district that uses an “open enrollment” model, 90% of the students were placed in the school that was their number-one ranking, he said.

If class size guidelines were increased by two students and District 65 shifted to an open-enrollment model, Mr. Godard said the savings would be $325,000 in FY’18; and when it was fully phased in after six years, the savings would be $2 million per year.

Mr. Godard said he was not recommending that option, because it would take several years to plan for an effective implementation, the cost for customized software would be expensive, and it would be disruptive to District 65 families.

Mr. Godard said he also considered a “Cap and Transfer” policy, which was implemented briefly at one school in the District in 2010, but he rejected the model because it would have a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic students.

The School Board will consider increasing the class-size guidelines later this month. Again, it would be done as part of a contingency plan if the referendum fails.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...