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Despite larger class sizes, Garner students are flourishing

Bigger and still better

By Nora Heaton
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Sometimes, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the experience matters more.
At Buford Garner Elementary School, class sizes may be higher than the district’s ideal numbers, but the atmosphere is one of creativity, curiosity, and innovation, said Principal Nick Proud.
In 2013, the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) adopted benchmarks to create target class sizes of 16 to 24 for kindergarten through second grade and 20 to 28 students in third through sixth grade. Garner classes are within range for kindergarten sections, but above the ideal range in seven of its 11 classes for first through third grades.
Erin Schroeder, fourth grade teacher and a Garner parent, said the school culture is warm and welcoming despite its size.
“It doesn’t feel large when you walk in the door,” Schroeder said. “We make it a point to know everyone’s name.”
Although research suggests smaller class sizes are beneficial to students over time, Proud said the quality of teachers matters more, and Garner teachers are well-equipped to handle their classes.
“To be honest, I don’t think they really worry about [the class sizes],” Proud said. “I think our teachers have a fabulous attitude of, ‘These are our kids; let’s make this happen.’”
Third grade, with about 30 students per class, was one of the grades highlighted in the ICCSD Board of Directors’ Oct. 27 meeting. Far from complaining about the numbers, Proud said, teachers’ feedback instead focused on ways they could rearrange the furniture to more comfortably accommodate the students. 
Proud said visitors to Garner can see that classrooms do not feel overcrowded, and those observing will instead get a glimpse into the top-notch education at the school. Fostering curiosity is a big part of learning there.
“You think about how the littlest of kids always ask the question, ‘Why?’” Proud said. “We try to think about how we can promote that, even in our older students. Instead of telling students, ‘Here’s Step 1, Step 2, Step 3,’ we explore how we can set something out in front of the kids and have them figure it out.”
Technology plays a big role in the innovative teaching practices at the school, he said. It allows for creativity and interaction with the learning materials. All grade levels use Chrome Books, and can access learning programs on these laptop computers. Older students can look at algebra through the lens of a video game, or use a program called Cahoots to create their own multiple choice quizzes. Younger students can use an application, Chatter Pics, for uses like book reports: after uploading a picture of a book character, students can record a 30-second clip of themselves talking about the book, and Chatter Pics will make it look like the character in the picture is speaking.
Recently, kindergarten and sixth grade joined together to write stories on Chrome Books. Kindergartners composed a short, scary Halloween-themed story, or wrote a few sentences about fall, and the sixth graders helped them type their pieces into the Chrome Books to be displayed during the school’s Halloween festivities.
Garner students often partner with older or younger students in “buddy classes” Schroeder said. A second grade class could pair with kindergarten or sixth grade, according to what they’re working on.
“There are so many options on who to partner up with, and the collaboration opportunities are vast,” she said. Teachers can also more easily learn from one another when there is a larger number of teachers per grade.
Jessie Viering, Parent-Teacher Organization co-president, has two sons at Garner. Both of them love the atmosphere of the large school.
“My kids love the number of friends they have—there are so many people they get to interact with every day,” Viering said. “If I had the choice between large classes at Garner, or going to another school that boasts small class sizes, I’d stay at Garner, hands down.”
Larger class sizes exist at Garner in part because of physical space limitations. However, the Facilities Master Plan shows the school is set to receive a 175-student addition in the fall of 2019, contingent on the district’s bond vote.
Until then, they will continue to make the Garner experience as positive for students as possible, even with the larger class sizes.
There are still some minor details to iron out— for instance, as Proud said, “How do you get 116 kindergartners through the cafeteria line?”
The answer?
One at a time.