Intimate Class Sizes are Enhancing the Way Students Learn at Prairie

It is a typical Friday outside of Susan Holum’s 1st Grade classroom at The Prairie School: parents milling in the hallways, teachers greeting their students, and a cacophony of excited young voices providing the morning’s soundtrack.  At 8:45, the class begins its reading lesson, and there is a palpable change in energy: they know it is time to dig in.  Split into groups of four or five, each led by Susan or her assistant, Elizabeth Long, these young learners begin to delve into the day’s work.

It is quickly evident how the class’ small size lends itself to this activity.  Each group is focused on a different book, and — without exception — every student steps forward to participate and offer ideas.  Holum’s students discuss the realism of their book’s cover, while Long’s group examines a globe to determine where in the world their story is taking place.  The teachers move quickly and easily about the room to gather extra supplies to supplement their conversations, and in the course of 45 minutes students make hypotheses, pinpoint context clues, read aloud to their friends, and piggyback on one another’s ideas to form their own conclusions about the text.  This is more than a tutorial in how to recognize words: it is a comprehensive social and educational skill-building experience.

At Prairie, Holum’s class size is the norm, and the school’s commitment to no more than 18 students per section is based in extensive research.  In a four-year Princeton study of 6,500 students in Kindergarten through 3rd grade, educators found that smaller class sizes — 13 to 17 students instead of 22 to 25 — resulted in significantly higher achievement in math, reading, and study skills.  Furthermore, those learning benefits were found to persist with students who began their scholastic careers in small classes, even if they were later placed in larger groupings.

As reflected in the both the Princeton study and Holum’s daily practice, a small classroom offers the ability to truly know and differentiate for each student — academically and otherwise.  “You can take a group of readers with a wide ability range and teach to each of their needs — and get to all of them meaningfully and effectively,” she explains.  There is a community benefit, too — with fewer discipline issues in a small cohort of learners who truly know and support one another, faculty can quickly address student misunderstandings and confusions.  This, in turn, leaves more time for curricular work, and the pace is often faster and more effective with fewer students — therefore increasing the amount of material covered in a day and, in turn, the school year.

The lesson concludes and 1st Grade begins preparing itself for its next educational adventure – yet another in which every student will undoubtedly receive the personalized attention of each faculty member, their instruction carefully tailored to each individual child.

Visit Prairie for All-School Open House on Sunday, October 29th, from 11AM to 2PM to learn how our master teachers help students realize their dreams as scholars, artists, athletes, and leaders. One of the finest independent, college preparatory schools in the country, The Prairie School helps PreK-12th grade students achieve excellence in all arenas.

Aliya Pitts is Prairie’s Assistant Head of School for Community Relations, where she oversees fundraising, admission, and marketing.  She is also the proud parent of Eleanor ’28 and Lincoln ’31.