The Case for More Need-Based Class Sizes at BFA

Students at work in a BFA English class. Photo credit: Rachel Ledoux

Students at work in a BFA English class. Photo credit: Rachel Ledoux

Rachel Ledoux, Editor

Bellows Free Academy has one of the largest student bodies in Vermont, with 888 students enrolled for this academic year, according to administrative assistant Teresa Callan. And that number is on the rise.

Since 2020, BFA class sizes have increased by about 5%, from 845 to the current 888. So, given such a large student body and the increase in numbers, it stands to reason that class sizes would be above average, as well.

The Mercury conducted a survey of 14 BFA teachers and found that about 64% of respondents (9/14) had an average of 16-20 students per class. The Department of Education states that the average class size in Vermont high schools is about 15 students.

In some regards, this is a good thing. The American Society for Engineering Education points out that large classes can support stronger learning environments, make partner work more prominent and help students get more efficient assistance from peers.

However, while there are certainly some benefits to larger class sizes, they are outweighed by the negative impacts. Large class sizes are damaging to teacher-student relationships, limit flexibility in the classroom and can prevent students from getting individual help.

“Student numbers which approach or exceed 20 or more are problematic,” Paul Brown, a BFA Science teacher, said. “The ability to directly engage students, answer questions, provide insight [and] guidance and supervise is often hindered.”

According to the survey, 71.4% of those surveyed (10 teachers) said their largest classes have over 20+ students present. As Brown expressed, this number can be limiting for teachers, especially in regard to providing help to students who may need it. On the other hand, smaller class sizes can allow teachers more flexibility to create safe spaces and effectively aid their students.

Jamie Bristol, BFA’s Engagement and Communication Coordinator and former English teacher, said that this is especially important.

“Small classes allow teachers to create a space that feels inviting, non-threatening and makes students feel like they belong,” Bristol said. She continued, “From a workflow standpoint, smaller classes allowed me to give students quicker and more meaningful feedback on the work they submitted.”

This was corroborated by Jakob Birnbaum (‘23).

“I think smaller classes are much more effective for the student to [get help quickly],” Birnbaum said. “It’s more effective to get help in a smaller class, so students can work closely with the teacher to get things done.”

The best compromise would be a class-size system based on student needs, which is already present in a portion of BFA classes. By expanding this system to all BFA courses, more students will be able to receive the individual support they might be needing. This could be accomplished by hiring more teachers or offering a larger range of difficulty levels for core classes. And, while this would certainly be a process, it might be worth it, in the long run, to better support students.

As one Social Studies Dept. teacher explained, “My 21st-century classes are smaller because they are need-based.” She added, “The more students that need support, the smaller class sizes should be so that all students can access the support and resources necessary to be successful.”

This opinion is shared by several teachers.

“The higher the academic and/or social need, the smaller class size (10-15) is more beneficial so I can be free [er] to focus on individual needs and coach students to grow as they need to in order to achieve learning outcomes,” Justin Bedell, a BFA Social Studies teacher, said. “This is difficult to do in a larger class size.”

Given the benefits of smaller classes, and BFA teachers expressing a need for more catered class sizes, it’s clear that our school would benefit from a student-need based class size system. In some regards, this is already implemented for many programs, but spreading it to all classes would allow teachers more flexibility and help all students receive more individualized instruction. 

Students need individualized aid to help them grow and learn to the best of their ability, and smaller class sizes may just be the change BFA needs to make in order to benefit its students.