Having smaller class sizes provides more time for teachers to focus on students, but as the county has increased in population, the school division has struggled to keep up with growth.
School Board Chairman Babur Lateef, re-elected on Nov. 5, said tackling the division’s large class sizes will be a priority for the new school board. While school board elections are nonpartisan, the local parties back a slate of candidates. And county voters added two Democrats to the board, giving them a 7-1 majority in January.
“We need to catch up with growth that’s already happened in Prince William, that’s something we heard from voters, regardless of who they voted for,” Lateef said.
Average class sizes throughout Prince William County schools vary widely. The average class size for elementary schools is 22.97 students per teacher, according to 2018 data. For middle schools, the average is 17.71, and the average is 19.32 at the county’s high schools.
Across more than 60 elementary schools, students experienced average class sizes anywhere from 18.84 students per class to 27.67 students per class. In first through third grades, Virginia’s standards of quality requires divisions have ratios of no more than 24 students per class and states that no single class can have more than 30 students.
In the county’s middle schools, students saw anywhere from 12.1 to 20.1 students per teacher on average in 2018. Virginia requires an average class size that cannot exceed 25 students per teacher and no single class can have more than 35 students in grades 4th-6th.
In the county’s high schools, students saw average class sizes anywhere from 16.9 to 21.2 students for every teacher last year.
Currently, the county uses 183 trailers as classrooms. Lateef said he thinks the recently elected county supervisors are also committed to reducing average class sizes.
“The best way to reduce class size is to add schools and additions,” he said.
In May, a joint committee on school construction — that has three county supervisors and three school board members — voted 3-1 to recommend the school board incorporate the $174.1 million plan to reduce classroom trailers, starting in fiscal year 2021. The vote means the county and school division are set to work together to consider how to add the eight-year plan to the school division’s 10-year capital improvement plan and to identify funding. The plan includes additions to elementary and middle schools and two new elementary schools.
“Those are the things we need to do in the eastern end where it’s most crowded,” Lateef said about the trailer reduction plan.
Lateef said addressing overcrowding in the division won’t be an overnight fix.
“I think we have political will that we didn’t have before,” he said.
With a new board of county supervisors, Lateef said he thinks the new board will be ready to work with the school board to determine how to fund school construction projects.
“Exactly how, I’m not sure, but I know there is now momentum to address these long term issues,” Lateef said. “The community, by voting for us, have heard us and agreed with us.”
Other issues Lateef said are priorities include increasing teacher and staff pay, improving the division’s student to counselor ratio and improving curriculum. Soon the school board will work on its five-year plan, Lateef said.
“I’d like to meet with stakeholders around the county, students, parents, teachers, school administration, folks who are interested in smart growth; all of those folks we’d like to talk to,” Lateef said.
COUNTING ON SUPPORT
In addition to flipping control from Republicans on the board of county supervisors, Democrats also flipped the majority in the Virginia General Assembly. Lateef thinks that will mean more funding for school divisions around Virginia.
“With the General Assembly flipping, I think you’ll see more priority of higher education and K-12,” he said.
Lateef said he wants to continue to improve the division so people will seek out the county’s schools.
“I’d like to make Prince William County Schools the destination school system,” he said. “I’d like people to come and live in Prince William County, because they believe our schools are the best.”
Lateef said he’s fascinated by teachers around the division who are doing great and innovative things.
“I just want to take what’s working and implement it across the division,” he said.
Virginia requires school divisions to report the average class size each year in January. The average class size is the number of students compared to the number of full-time teachers, excluding resource teachers, such as elementary art teacher, elementary music teacher, elementary PE teacher, elementary reading teacher, gifted education teacher, ESOL teacher and other resource teachers.