Thoughts on a Small Cohort by Middle School Parents and Teachers

We understand that enrolling in CVA often means adjusting to a smaller class size. Parents have questioned what that change may mean to their child academically and socially. To help parents as they work through the questions we asked three middle school teachers and two parents to give us their feedback.

Feedback from Parents 

Mary Labelle: mother of Angelique, 8th grade alpine 

Since Angelique's primary education was at a small school, the CVA environment was perfect for her. Although we were concerned about re- entry to Portland we found it to be seamless.  In fact her teachers remarked about her increase in confidence and how she was better able to handle herself in a large classroom setting. Most importantly her NWEA scores improved. There were marked improvements in both Math and English.  Her Portland English teacher gave CVA credit for the dramatic leap.  

The CVA instructors are in constant communication with students and parents as needed.  Anders, the middle school humanities teacher, is incredibly engaging, high energy, and focuses on all levels of diversity. Angelique experienced a sense of belonging. The other students are open and welcoming and do not engage in drama. The rigor of the program requires focus on tasks, and fun and social interactions are woven throughout. They sit as a team at lunch and walk together to class. The sense of being a part of a caring community is real. The relationships and friendships are real. It was the right decision to send Angelique to CVA and she will be returning again this fall. 

Erika Arner:  mother of Colin - 9th grade freestyle skier 

My son, Colin, was an 8th grader in the freestyle program last year.  During most of his elementary school years we lived in Fairfax County, VA where he was in classrooms of 25-30 kids. The experience of moving to a small classroom was definitely a change for him and he had to adapt to receiving more of the teacher’s attention.  He did very well in the larger classrooms, but what was missing for him was the ability to be challenged. We found that the teacher’s attention was drawn to the squeaky wheels or those who were struggling and he was left alone.

Once we moved to the smaller environment we found that he was challenged academically and he is thriving.  CVA has a set curriculum; however, because of their size he is able to receive customized assignments that push his potential.  I am impressed with the amount of one-on-one time he has with his teachers.

The expectation that the student be independent and responsible is certainly higher at CVA than the public school.  They definitely get a crash course in life and organizational skills development. While it can feel challenging, the students are intentionally taught these skills with a lot of support. 

Colin feels very connected at CVA…it is a close community. As he grows older he will have to learn to navigate the tricky high school issues and relationships. As a parent I feel like those years will be more manageable and less threatening to me because the CVA staff knows Colin so well and they will partner and communicate with me. I have a caring community that will support us. While Colin spends his time on the slopes with the freestyle team, his closest friends are the alpine athletes which has broadened his experience. 

Feedback from teachers  

Karen Lanoue-Egan: 7th grade science, biology, advanced biology, and physics

Small science classes are an ideal learning environment.  Having a science class of even just 2 or 3 students is wonderful because so many more possibilities open up to individually prepare these middle schoolers for high school and to get them interested in science!  This is a very energetic age group so having fewer students in the classroom immediately allows for fewer distractions thus greater focus on instruction and learning.  Also the small class size increases the teacher interaction with each student.  This provides a nurturing class environment enabling all students to feel much more comfortable increasing scientific inquisitiveness and pro-active learning.  The scientific questions I have been asked by my 7th graders over the years have been amazing!  

The smaller class sizes also enable one-on-one attention from the instructor on projects and laboratory experiments.  In a larger science class often lab groups or project groups are 2-4 students or even more.  This is not the case at CVA.  In my 7th grade science class for example, the students gather around the same lab bench but each student has their own lab equipment and are expected to carry out their own experiments so they are learning to be much more self-sufficient in the laboratory while still working side by side with their classmates for help and ideas.  With the smaller class size, I can also really focus on teaching them how to write a high school level laboratory report since I can do this over multiple days and individually work with students on their writing and revising until the lab report is at a quality level.     

One of the other main benefits of the small middle school class size is being able to monitor and prepare work for these students when they do miss class for ski or snowboard competitions.  All our middle school teachers are also our high school teachers that support this athletic travel and understand how critical it is that these athletes are sent with quality class material when they miss school for competition.  Because of the small class sizes in science, I can really individualize these travel assignments to meet the needs of the individual student.  Also having them as middle schoolers really allows us to start teaching them how to be independent and pro-active learners which are essential skills they will need to develop in order to be successful student-athletes at the high school level.  

Jenny Wiltse-McClure:  physical science, environmental science, algebra 1 and team- teaches physics 

There is no doubt that class sizes may be smaller at CVA than in a larger public school setting. However, students are still able to engage socially in a science lab setting just as they would in a larger class. In fact, with a lower student to teacher ratio in the lab setting, I have found that I am much more able to engage students in conversations regarding why certain trends develop in their data during the lab activity instead of just recording data and reporting results. Additionally, students have the chance to redesign their lab work when applicable to see how certain changes in variables can impact the outcome.  

When I hosted lab activities in a larger class setting, I rarely had time to engage with students one on one as I typically had to circulate quickly and constantly throughout the room to help with lab set -up and to be sure that all students lab equipment, chemicals, etc. were adequate and working properly. We usually would try to analyze lab data during the next class period as there was no time to do so in conjunction with the lab. Waiting a day or two to analyze results was not as effective and did not give students the chance to think about redesigning the lab for improved results. Without the lab design and purpose fresh in their minds, it could be very difficult to discuss trends and/or relate the lab to concepts covered in class.  

The science lab setting at CVA allows for students to be social and work together. Furthermore, the smaller class size gives students the chance to truly act as scientists as they have the time and support needed to troubleshoot and revise lab designs and analyze results while working within the classroom setting.  

Anders Samuelson:  middle school humanities, freshman and sophomore English  

As Karen and Jenny have expressed, the numerous benefits of the relatively smaller class sizes at CVA cannot be overstated.  I don’t want to make this about me, but I do want to provide a quick personal anecdote to provide some context.    

After four years of taking French in high school I was eager to try a different foreign language when I got to Bowdoin.  During my Freshman Orientation I went to the annual, “Language Department Fair” - not much of a fair - and informally met with professors from some of the various departments.   In the end I wound up choosing between Russian and German in large part because there were considerably fewer students signing up for those languages than there were for French, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin.  Although I decided not to major in German, when people ask me what my favorite classes were in college I always go back to the German Department; I tell them there was, “...no way I was going to fall through the cracks with Professor Cerf or Tautz.”    

I don’t want to suggest that students will inevitably fall through the cracks in a larger class setting - that’s just not true - but I do want to stress the benefits of a smaller Humanities class.  Because I so rarely have to deal with behavioral issues, I find that we have significantly more time to focus on material (and if need be, get into perhaps somewhat tangential but still beneficial material.)  For instance, if we’re studying the craft of editorial writing:  

  • Objective overview of the issue
  • Thesis
  • Opposing side’s point of view
  • Factually-supported rebuttal of that point of view
  • Closing statement  

and I hand out a New York Times editorial on why the 2022 Winter Olympics ought not to be held in Beijing. We can afford to spend some time talking about the politics of that decision and not just solely on how it demonstrates a solid understanding of the editorial form. (Outlined above.)  In other words, we have some wiggle room and in a humanities environment, a lot of valuable learning takes place in that “wiggle room” for lack of a better term.  

On this note, if we were to engage in such a discussion, I like to think that every student would feel comfortable expressing his or her opinion.  This gets back to the numbers issue… while I never force students to contribute to discussions, I think every student comes to my class knowing that there is a very good chance that I will at least ask them what they think about their current reading assignment or one of their classmate’s comments etc. In short there’s not a lot of room to hide.  

Finally, I think the most beneficial aspect of the smaller class size comes with editing process.  While some teachers at bigger schools may have twenty-five essays per class to get through, I generally have significantly fewer and thus I like to think that my students generally get more thorough feedback on their major writing assignments.  In addition to looking for major structural issues in their writing, I am able to get into the nitty-gritty of grammar and punctuation and as we all know, sound grammar is somewhat of a dying art.  

Academics

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