ATA News

Class size data indicate a system under strain

Edmonton Public teachers feeling the impact of large, complex classes

A teacher stands in front of a class with many raised hands

The latest class size data from Edmonton Public Schools confirms what many already knew — that the student population within the division is large and complex.

On Jan. 23, the division’s board of trustees received a report that captured class sizes, as well as students with exceptionalities and with English as an additional language. The report breaks down the average class size across grades and subject categories, and reveals both some stability and some increases in class size and complexity. 

“This data reflects a snapshot in time,” superintendent Darryl Robertson told the board, noting that the report captured how many students were enrolled as of Sept. 30. He advised that since the time of reporting, some classes had been split, adjusted or otherwise resourced, referencing the high numbers for Div IV (grades 10–12) in particular. 

Div IV has seen a notable increase over the past three years. In 2023/24, about half of Div IV classes had more than 30 students, with the largest class having 56 students. The division attributes the larger classes partly to space pressures.

How many is too many?

Edmonton Public Schools

Grades ACOL recommendation for average class size Average number of students, 2023/34 Biggest classes, 2023/24
K-3 17 22.5 37
Grades 4-6 23 23.4 42
Grades 7-9 25 26.3 46
High school 27 28.3 56

Robertson cited Lillian Osborne High School as an example of a school in the division that is over 100 per cent capacity, which restricts their ability to split classes when course enrollment is high. He added that school officials do their best to accommodate the scheduling needs of students to ensure students can graduate with the courses they need.

“For some of our high schools, they don’t have another classroom,” Robertson told the board, “So they’re trying to accommodate … a kid needs Biology 30, they need Biology 30 … so they’re having to nudge up those class sizes to accommodate the needs of kids to a reasonable level.” 

Though the trend upward primarily affects Div IV, the grades that have been relatively stable over the past three years remain at or beyond the high end of Alberta’s Commission on Learning (ACOL) recommendations.

Kids in a classroom

Two teachers in the division, Karlee Hren and Jonathan Hemphill, share that their experiences are not fully captured by the numbers. Both have more than the averages cited in the report, both in terms of class size and exceptionalities or students learning a second language.

Grade 5 teacher Hren has 28 students in her class, while Grade 4 teacher Hemphill has 29. This is five and six more students, respectively, than the recommended average of 23 for a Div II class.

“I haven’t had 23 students for years,” Hren says, “and I know many colleagues experiencing the same.” 

It is not only the number of students that creates challenges in attending to each student’s needs, but also the complex needs of students. 

“Composition is so important,” Hemphill says, “because students with higher needs, students who require supports, will require more time and attention, creating less time for other students.”

Like Hemphill, Hren works with students with varying needs and abilities. She often finds herself feeling like a doctor trying to attend to 28 patients with pressing individual needs all at once, triaging as best she can.

“I’m just running,” she says. “Teachers, the board, schools — they are doing their best, but the students deserve better.”

Data is key 

Upon receiving the report on class size, board trustee Marcia Hole commended division staff for their work.

“I’m so glad that the division continues to report this data as a way of being accountable and transparent on a topic that can be hot for families and for students and for staff,” said Hole.

Echoing this sentiment, both Hren and Hemphill acknowledge the importance of gathering data that reflect the complexities in the classroom and that can move the conversation forward.

“I applaud the division for continuing to collect data,” Hemphill says, “We need detailed data to inform the decisions that need to be made.”

The Government of Alberta stopped collecting class size data nearly five years ago, in 2019, when data was showing years of unprecedented growth in Alberta class sizes. 

ATA president Jason Schilling sees value in class size and complexity data being collected across the province to support conversations around education funding. 

“The government needs to take seriously the needs of teachers, students and parents,” Schilling said. “One way the government can better address the reality in our schools across Alberta is to once again start collecting class size data from all school authorities in Alberta.” ❚