Fort Worth schools are asking the state to waive classroom size rules. Here’s why.

James Hartley/jhartley@star-telegram.com

The Fort Worth school district is applying for a waiver allowing it to exceed maximum class sizes set by state law at 22 students for grades pre-K through fourth grade.

In Fort Worth ISD, more than 120 classrooms spread across every elementary school are above that limit, ranging from classes with 23 students up to 30 students, according to an agenda for the September school board meeting.

Existing staff were reallocated during the fall leveling process in order to meet the student-teacher ratio of 22:1 to the greatest extent possible, according to board documents.

“Despite the reallocation of staff, there are still classrooms over the established 22:1 class size ratio in grades PK-4,” district staff said in the documents.

While district officials say the move to seek a waiver is necessary to provide the highest-quality instruction, advocates have pointed to larger class sizes as hindering early childhood education and kindergarten readiness.

Steven Poole, the Executive Director of the United Educators Association spoke at the board meeting and asked the district to explore other options.

While the application of waivers is common, Poole said the size of the classrooms is a concern.

“It is really concerning when you see numbers jumping up to 27 ... 32,” he said. “Real talk, over 50% of those requests are coming east of I-35. Our students deserve quality academic setting.”

The average class size in Fort Worth Schools in the 2020-21 school year for kindergarten classes was 16.6, according to recent Texas Education Agency data. Statewide it was 17.7.

Waiver ensures more students get qualified teachers

Jerry Moore, chief of schools for Fort Worth ISD, said the move was necessary in order to ensure all students are receiving the highest-quality education, especially as teacher shortages continue to impact the district. Research on the topic of class size has shown that the quality of instruction is just as, if not more important, than the number of students in a classroom.

Moore said the district has observed the same thing.

“We’re out of compliance now, because we felt like it was in the best interest of students to be in a classroom with a certified teacher every single day, instead of being with a substitute and uncertified teacher, and sometimes being with multiple substitutes who come in and out when that’s not consistent,” he told the Star-Telegram.

In other circumstances, Moore said, classrooms have been leveled out according to the needs of emergent bilingual students.

“At the elementary level where the 22:1 ratio comes into play, we run … a predominantly English program and the dual-language program,” he said, “What happens at many of our elementary schools is in a grade level, those students don’t enroll in perfect 22s.”

Ensuring teachers only focus on dual language or English programs within a classroom increases the quality of overall instruction, even if it results in some larger classes, Moore said.

Other options to ensure compliance include bridge classrooms, where teachers are responsible for multiple grades within the same classroom.

“It’s a better benefit for our teachers and our students to be just one or two students over the 22 to one ratio,” Moore said.

Teachers in the larger classrooms are given extra compensation and are prioritized for extra staffing including substitutes or instructional coaches, Moore added.

Poole said during the board meeting that increased compensation is not the only thing teachers need.

“What they need is time and support,” he said. “We can do better.”

Advocates who pushed for a 2021 law change that included pre-K in the classroom size requirements say there are costs to larger class sizes.

Advocates say larger classes are bad for young children

Until 2021, the class size limit only applied to kindergarten through fourth grade. But advocates successfully pushed for a change to include pre-K in the requirement under new legislation, citing studies that show the importance of smaller class size on school readiness.

In testimony on a piece of legislation that expanded classroom size requirements to pre-K through fourth grade, the advocacy organization Texans Care for Children said larger class sizes bring challenges.

“With a class size of over 22 students per teacher, it’s challenging even for the most experienced teacher to address each child’s needs, manage behavioral challenges, and get young students ready for kindergarten,” David Feigen, early childhood policy associate, said in prepared remarks.

In addition, high-quality, low-ratio care has been tied to higher rates of kindergarten readiness, Feigen testified.

“According to the E3 Alliance’s analysis of Texas education data, it takes the combination of full-day pre-K and low student-teacher ratios to see significantly greater kindergarten readiness, leading to better outcomes across a child’s education,” he said.

In 2020 only 63% of students assessed in Fort Worth schools were considered kindergarten ready, according to Texas Education Agency data; 76% attended pre-K prior to attending school.

More recent data was not available.

The waiver was voted on at the regular September board meeting Tuesday night.

Trustee Anne Darr asked for a report to be compiled to explore the topic, but said the board did not hold the responsibility of fixing the issue.

“It is not the board’s responsibility ... to solve this problem,” she said, adding that the board should work to support the superintendent in dealing with the class size issue.

“Just because we apply for the waiver, doesn’t mean the work is done,” she added.