April 24, 2014 11:51AM
By Dan Brechlin
MERIDEN — Often thought of as an impediment, large class sizes can actually have their benefits, according to a well-known author, citing the experience of a former Meriden teacher.
In his book “David and Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell examines underdog situations from a different perspective, showing that a dark horse can sometimes be at the advantage. In analyzing the pros and cons of class size, Gladwell looks at a handful of schools and districts in Connecticut, including Meriden.
Gladwell polled “a large number” of teachers, finding that 18 students in a classroom is an ideal number with “enough bodies in the room that no one person needs to feel vulnerable, but everyone can feel important,” he writes.
Among those he spoke with was Teresa DeBrito, a former math teacher at Washington Middle School. She went on to become a principal of a middle school in Shepaug Valley in western Connecticut and now serves as the director of curriculum and instruction for the district. Shepaug Valley includes Washington, Bridgewater and Roxbury.
In Meriden, DeBrito taught students of different learning levels with diverse backgrounds and dealt with larger class sizes. Among them was a group of 29 students at Washington Middle School, which becomes a highlight of the book.
“That’s the class that stands out in my heart and in my mind,” DeBrito said by phone Monday. “Getting them to think about their learning was awesome and it was really rewarding. Sometimes you can get stuck in a setting...and it’s not stimulating to go beyond basic work like worksheets so I really wanted to stretch them. I know I’m not the norm, and (Gladwell) alludes to that, but the kids knew I cared about them and had really high expectations no matter what level I was teaching.”
The best-selling author and DeBrito had a mutual acquaintance who told Gladwell about her and her accomplishments. Gladwell and DeBrito met up and discussed their views on education, class sizes, enrollment figures and other topics. There was no full indication that DeBrito would be quoted, much less be the focus of an entire chapter of a book. DeBrito said she found out when a colleague brought the book in.
“He asked me a lot of questions and he would follow up my questions and that was that,” she said, noting it was last school year when they met.
From 1995 to 2000, DeBrito worked as a math teacher at Washington, also becoming chair of the math department. The school had close to 1,200 students while she was there, she said, describing it as a large middle school. With the school broken into nine teams across three grade levels, DeBrito had five classes within her team and could be teaching up to 130 students on a daily basis. Her team was the only one in the school to mix grades and had been thought of as the “overflow” group of the school.
“There are challenges with that total number,” she said. “It’s very difficult to present high-level learning experiences and it takes a lot of time to prepare when there are that many to teach.”
When broken into individual classes, DeBrito said many assume those large classes could become difficult to teach, which Gladwell argued is not always the case. He stated that the philosophy could be shifted to have students and parents stop thinking that children are competitors for the teacher’s attention and “allies in the adventure of learning.”
DeBrito told Gladwell that a large class size means “you’ve got to be able to have eyes in the back of your head,” but admitted to liking the 29-student class, calling it one of the best years of her career.
“There were so many more peers to interact with,” she told Gladwell. “They weren’t always relating with just this one group. There was more opportunity to vary your experiences. And that’s the real issue — what can be done to enliven, enrich and engage the child so they aren’t just being passive.”
Though he has yet to read the book, Meriden School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni said he was not surprised to hear about DeBrito’s take and her experiences in city schools.
“Our diversity is one of the greatest strengths of the city and the school system,” Benigni said, also noting the teachers play a major role. “While class size is a factor, effective teachers find a way to keep all students engaged and on task throughout the day.”
Benigni added that sometimes smaller class sizes mean “not as rich class discussions,” which is a point Gladwell makes in his book. Gladwell points to the Hotchkiss School, a $50,000-a-year private school in Lakeville, Conn., where small class size is highlighted by school administrators as a benefit, though it may be counterintuitive, he explains. The diversity of a class can also help discussions and higher numbers can be broken into smaller, collaborative work groups, Benigni said.
After leaving Meriden, DeBrito took an assistant principal job in Bristol, which she said was comparable to Meriden in terms of class size and overall community. DeBrito said she had “an awesome experience” in Meriden and takes a bell with her name on it presented by the principal at the time wherever she goes and puts it on her desk because “I owe my success to the colleagues and students who made me a better teacher.” After six years in Bristol, DeBrito made the shift to Shepaug Valley, which had smaller class sizes.
“The parents here really do value small class sizes,” she said.
Different communities, DeBrito said, are going to have different takes on class sizes, but she understands both sides to the argument.
Larger class sizes present several challenges, Benigni noted, especially at the lower grade levels. At those levels, Benigni said the district takes a look at class sizes and, especially earlier in the school year, can make some hires to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio if the Board of Education budget allows for it.
“The board has made a concerted effort to address class size levels, particularly in the lower grades first,” he said. “That said, class size is only one variable to a student’s success.”