Education feature: Group advocates limiting class sizes

By Liliana Castillo: CNJ staff writer

A Santa Fe-based think tank says building smaller schools would help lower New Mexico’s dropout rate and raise academic achievement.

Think New Mexico plans to push legislation during the 2009 session to limit enrollment in all New Mexico high schools to no more than 900 students. Schools that have more students and receive funds for at-risk students would be required to establish smaller learning communities by 2011.

Clovis High School houses 1600 students in grades 10-12, with an additional 600 attending the freshman campus, according to school officials.

“Economically, it doesn’t make sense to build a new high school when you don’t have to,” said Clovis Municipal Schools system superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm.

Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, said graduation rates climb because students are “more likely to stick around” if they’re engaged in the education process.

“When children have better, more personal connections to teachers or some adult in high school, the better they do,” Seidenwurm said. “And they will get that (in smaller learning communities.)”

Seidenwurm has other paths towards that end. She said she would like to have a career technical center at Clovis Community College, which would transplant 400-600 students from the main campus.

“It would basically organize kids around interest areas,” she said.

Seidenwurm also said that smaller learning communities would help connect students who aren’t interested in extracurricular activities.

“It’s not as critical for kids that are very involved with extracurricular things; they pretty much connect themselves,” she said. “But for kids that don’t have particular interest outside of the classroom, the smaller learning communities will get them connected.”

Think New Mexico studied the class of 2007 and found that schools in the state with 500-1,000 students had the lowest dropout rate, 31.7 percent.

In addition to limiting the size of high schools to 225 students per grade, Think New Mexico is also proposing to cap enrollment at middle schools at 120 students per grade and at elementary schools at 60 students per grade.

Seidenwurm said keeping elementary schools small won’t be an issue for the district.

“We’ve always had small elementary schools. In some districts, it’s not unusual to have 800-1,000 kids in one elementary school. We’ve always resisted that,” she said.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.