Class sizes 20% above average for Alberta's youngest students 'alarming', teachers' union president says

Alberta teachers are ringing the alarm about overcrowded classrooms coupled with an increase in complex student requirements.

Increasingly complex student needs add to mounting challenges facing teachers

The Alberta Teacher Association says 12 core classes offered in various schools throughout the province had more than 44 students during the 2017/2018 school year.

Alberta teachers are ringing the alarm about overcrowded classrooms coupled increasingly complex student requirements they are faced with in their schools.

As CBC News reported earlier this week, the My Class Size Is campaign sponsored by the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) asks teachers to compare their class sizes to government classroom size targets and post a photo on social media.

Grade 5 Rocky View School Division teacher Michelle Glavine said in 20 years of teaching, she's never had a class size under the targets.

"Currently I have 27 in a Grade 5 class and the lowest number I've ever had in my classroom would be 24 in a middle school classroom, which was significantly lower than some of the numbers we see today," she said.

But, what is making things even more difficult for Alberta teachers is an increase they're seeing in complex student needs, according to Glavine.

"Just about every classroom, I would venture to say every classroom in the province, has different challenges that teachers have to deal with," she said.

"They would include English language learners, they would include learning needs, academic requirements. They could also include behavioural issues that teachers deal with in classrooms."

Patricia Mackenzie is a former commissioner for the Alberta Commission on Learning (ACOL) that was formed in 2003 following a teacher strike in the province.

The commission was tasked with making recommendations for the future of education in the province following the strike.

Mackenzie said the ACOL made recommendations around class sizes, which were largely adopted in the years to follow.

They recommended that from grades K-3 there be no more than 17 students, in grades 4-6 no more than 23 students, in grades 7-9 no more than 25 students, and grades 10-12 no more than 27 students.

Mackenzie said these numbers were meant to indicate the maximum number of students in a classroom, but weren't hard and fast.

"The commission felt that there should be a degree of flexibility," she said.

"It recognized that class composition should be considered because of special needs, students whose first language wasn't English, if there were at-risk students — all of these would probably result or should result in smaller classroom sizes."

According to the ATA however, class sizes have been climbing, and since 2009 the student population has grown by nearly 100,000 students.

"We're looking at about 20 per cent above the average right now in Alberta in that division one, K to 3," said ATA president Greg Jeffery.

Jeffery said that number is alarming.

Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, says smaller class sizes make it easier for teachers to correct learning difficulties, especially in the early grades. (Submitted by the Alberta Teachers' Assocation)

"That's why we often talk about K to 3, because of the opportunity to diagnose learning difficulties," he said. "A small class size makes them much more easily corrected, and allows a teacher much more one-on-one time."

Glavine said this year a province-wide classroom improvement fund allotted to each school board helped ease frustrations.

She said the fund went a long way this year in terms of helping to meet specific needs in classrooms, and one of the reasons for that is teachers had a voice in how it was spent.

Teachers had a say

Glavine said there was a committee that decided how the money was spent and it was made up of 50 per cent teachers and 50 per cent division office staff, which meant teachers had a say and were able to communicate what the specific needs were in the classroom.  

"In my particular situation we have an assistant that comes in and spends about half of my time with me in the classroom this year, and that's a change from any other year that I've ever had," she said.

"So it's fabulous to be able to have another set of hands, another person who can work with students individually, just to help meet some of the needs of the kids."

And, with collective bargaining for ATA teachers around the corner, Glavine said she hopes it's understood what an impact this kind of funding could have if offered longterm.

"I think sometimes we hear that there are needs for more funding, but we don't know specifically what those needs are," she said.

"We just want to make sure we don't have students falling through the cracks and not getting the supports they need."

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen speaks with a teacher at Connect Charter School in Calgary Thursday. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Education Minister David Eggen said as a former teacher, he understands the challenges teachers are facing with large class sizes and complex learners.

"Inclusion, philosophically, is a very important idea, but with supports," he said.

Eggen hopes that the opening of 53 new schools in Alberta over the last year, as well as consistent enrolment funding for school boards, will lead to more hiring.

"That's the next step," he said.