The Lakeville school district is moving to reduce its notoriously large class sizes next year, but leaders also wants to explore innovative ways of keeping classes small in the future.

Classes are now the largest among metro-area districts, and sizes are especially high in grades 3 through 5 and at the high schools, said Superintendent Lisa Snyder.

For the district, reducing class sizes and increasing STEM programming have emerged as clear priorities, and the district pledged to improve those areas when a $5.6 million levy referendum passed last November, Snyder said.

"This is a wonderful position to be in," Snyder said.

The levy's passage provides $1.6 million in additional funding, which the district will use to hire 10.8 teachers in grades 3 through 5, where class sizes have climbed to the mid-30s at some schools. The new teachers will reduce class sizes to a maximum of 32 in those grades.

The recommendations will also bring on six more kindergarten teachers to teach all-day sections, keeping classes under 24 students at that level.

Finally, a teacher will be added at each high school, in an academic area designated by the principal. Class sizes in the mid-40s are "getting to be the norm" at the high schools, "which is very difficult," Snyder said.

The overall high school situation isn't going to change just by adding a position, but with some classes, like science labs, a single teacher offering five additional sections of a course will make a big difference, Snyder said.

At a recent study session and at the April 8 school board meeting, some board members voiced their desire for class sizes to be lowered even more, while others called for alternative ways to keep numbers in check. Board Member Michelle Volk voted in favor of hiring more teachers. However, she questioned long-term sustainability of the move, asking whether the district will have to lay off some of the new teachers next year if funding becomes scarce again.

"My concerns have been I wanted to make sure … we didn't giveth and then taketh away," she said.

She added that "while we don't have the details yet, we have discussed that we need to work on a more sustainable model of handling class sizes."

Terry Lind, a board member and former elementary school principal, wanted to explore ways class sizes could be reduced even further than current recommendations. "This is an issue that has not been solved," he said.

Class sizes have swelled after $30 million in budget cuts, including teacher layoffs, in the past 10 years, during which time three levy referendums failed.

Does class size matter?

While parents often consider the benefits of smaller class sizes a no-brainer, the research is mixed, with some reports concluding that low class sizes aren't all they're cracked up to be.

At a recent study session, Snyder referenced a study that summarized years of research on what initiatives actually affect students' academic achievement. The analysis concluded that maintaining low class sizes has almost no influence on achievement, Snyder said.

Factors such as teacher-student relationships, providing evaluations to teachers and intervening to help students who are struggling were all considered "high influence."

But Board Member Bob Erickson mentioned a study recently e-mailed to the board by Snyder that found the opposite results — that lowering class size made a significant difference.

Lind questioned how the studies measured student learning, and said they likely didn't account for the quality of students' relationships with teachers. Such relationships, essential for kids' development, are stronger with fewer kids per class, he said.

Snyder said that there are more innovative ways to approach the class size issue — and the success of some of them can already be seen in the district. She cited Impact Academy, the district's program for grades K-3 that lets students advance at their own pace. Without conventional grade levels, the school can just hire a set number of teachers, making it "really easy to balance out the numbers" in terms of students per teacher, she said.

Other solutions include hybrid classes, with some lessons online and some in a traditional classroom, or flexible scheduling, where students might meet for a large-group lecture one day and a lab or small group study session the next, for different time increments. Such an arrangement uses fewer teachers and enables students to have more meaningful interactions with them as well, Snyder said.

Snyder believes that while parents are often insistent on the power of smaller class sizes, that could change if they were shown a different model. "Until we courageously change our system, we'll continue to spend our money on things that are low influence," she said.