Does Subtracting Students Add Educational Value?

Stuyvesant classes will soon be limited to 25 students each, affecting everything from elective availability to competition among students.

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By Ivy Zheng

Stuyvesant High School is defined by many unique characteristics: world-renowned academics coupled with an overwhelming workload, ample academic opportunities, and a 10-floor facility featuring escalators and a swimming pool. One such element that often goes unnoticed is that Stuyvesant has one of the largest student bodies of any public high school in Manhattan, with over 3,200 students. However, this may change come the 2028-2029 school year. In September 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill that will limit the number of high school students in each class to 25. This policy seeks to increase student engagement and decrease overcrowding in New York classrooms. Though the bill is effective immediately, changes will be phased in over a five-year period. The transition period started during the 2023-2024 school year after Governor Hochul agreed to delay the implementation by one year. Currently, Stuyvesant classes have a maximum of 34 students, except for Freshman Composition classes which are capped at 28.

Though the bill was signed by Governor Hochul and overwhelmingly passed by the New York State Senate and Assembly, Mayor Eric Adams and the New York City Department of Education have expressed opposition to the 25-student policy. While Adams supports small class sizes, the new mandate is estimated to cost nearly $2 billion per year, according to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office

However, the bill is a win for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the city’s largest teachers’ union, which believes in raising academic standards and promoting equity in education.  According to a UFT survey this December, “More than 322,000 students in Title I schools across every borough are in oversized classes. In nearly 700 Title I schools, 50 percent or more classes are larger than what the law allows.” Schools receiving Title I funding serve student populations where at least 40 percent of the children come from low-income households. For context, Stuyvesant does not receive this designation. The new bill ensures the maintenance of smaller size classes in underserved areas, meaning more individual attention can be given to each student. 

English teacher Mark Henderson described how the English department has embraced this philosophy by teaching certain students in smaller groups. “I have my senior classes with about 34 students per class—that is the current state limit. And my ninth grade classes are 27 or 28 [students],” Henderson said. “We try to keep the Freshman Composition [classes] smaller so we can give more individual attention. It’s easier to get to know individual students and to have a sense of what they do well and what they need help with.” For freshmen, who undergo a period of transition upon entering Stuyvesant, this individualized attention is particularly valuable. However, Henderson noted that the new class size mandate would affect many more students and teachers than the effort to shrink Freshman Composition classes did. “We would need more rooms and more teachers. Or we might need multiple sessions, like starting school earlier,” Henderson said.

Principal Dr. Seung Yu echoed Henderson’s concerns about strains on school resources. “You would need more teachers, and there’s been budget cuts,” Dr. Yu explained. “We use almost all our classrooms for almost every period. We don’t have an abundance of classrooms that could allow us to move to 25 students per class.” Possible solutions to these physical and budgetary limitations are not immediately apparent. It would require extensive planning and administrative attention to mitigate any disruptive effects on learning.

Of course, the school administration will not have to forge a path forward on its own. “We’re working closely with the New York City Public Schools to better determine how we should proceed,” Dr. Yu said. “My understanding is that New York City public schools, at least for the first two years, seem to be meeting whatever mandate has been provided in terms of the implementation process with New York State.” Since the policy is set to be in full effect in five years, it is likely that current Stuyvesant juniors and seniors will see few changes to school policy by the time they graduate. However, the Class of 2026 and onward may experience the changes brought on during the implementation of the bill.

Though the policy will cost nearly $2 billion per year, lawmakers argue that enough funding has been provided. New York State Senator John Liu, who sponsored the bill, stated that Albany has provided the Department of Education $1.6 billion in state aid. The law also requires  New York City Department of Education Chancellor David Banks to work with principals and union leaders to come up with a plan to create smaller classes. It holds the Department of Education responsible for building new classrooms in congested school districts. Adjustments specific to each school will be made in the coming years. “We have gotten some requests to think about our spaces and [...] our enrollment and what class sizes of 25 would result in,” Dr. Yu elaborated. “In our case, [we would need an] additional section of classes to meet the 25 student mandate. We’re keeping a close eye on this and awaiting more guidance.”

Junior Tamiyyah Shafiq suggested that the 25-student policy may not be beneficial for every Stuyvesant class. The unique teaching style of each teacher should be taken into consideration when considering the policy’s effectiveness. “For classes like Spanish, I think it could be beneficial because those classes are a lot more interactive and more collective,” Shafiq noted. “I think for my Spanish teacher, especially, she would appreciate smaller class sizes so that she could focus more on each individual.” 

However, Shafiq argued that smaller class sizes wouldn’t make much of a difference in terms of lecture style. In reference to her English class, Shafiq described, “We have a very close community because our English teacher fosters that kind of community. We all know each other very well—I feel like if there were [even] more students, I don't think it would’ve made much more of a difference.” 

Furthermore, the bill may be limited by the diversity of learning styles present within the student body. Shafiq explained, “Some students learn better in smaller classes and some students learn better with less attention on themselves in larger settings.” Shafiq also noted that even now, class sizes can be controversial.

Senior and Student Union President Amanda Cissé worries that the change to smaller class sizes will impact accessibility to AP classes and electives. “The consequences of smaller class sizes are that at Stuy, there [are fewer] people who can take AP classes and less slots for APs and honors classes,” Cissé elaborated. “And so it makes it [more] competitive, and it’s already extremely competitive because there are so many students.” 

Popular electives such as Personal Finance are especially vulnerable. Shafiq pointed out, “There’s not enough seats, so people literally just go and sit on the floor [be]cause they really want to take the class.” The limited spots in popular classes lead students to find alternative methods to engage with the curricula. These may include auditing, self-studying, or just listening in on lectures. 

Dr. Yu recognizes the importance of the elective classes referenced by Shafiq and Cissé.  “What’s unique about our school is that we have a number of elective courses, which I think any of our students—if not all—would really enjoy.” However, the implementation of the 25-student policy may jeopardize the existence of some of these classes. “In order to comply with the 25 student per class mandate, you’d have to look at your core classes, all the requirements for graduation, and see whether or not we can fulfill that mandate for all of those courses,” Dr. Yu explained. “If we [aren’t] able to do that, we’d have to look at our entire course catalog, about what courses would have to be offered in order to meet the mandate.” Considering the limited supply of teachers and classrooms at Stuyvesant, it is unsurprising that classes not required for graduation may have to be scaled back or even discontinued completely. The removal of certain electives appears to be a better solution to the issue than proposals such as reducing the number of students accepted each year or implementing a staggered schedule. Still, it would also take away many of the classes that students most look forward to, a consideration that should not be taken lightly. 

Ultimately, the advantages of 25-student classrooms may be worth the drawbacks. Cissé emphasizes the importance of student-teacher relationships and anticipates that the new policy will catalyze these bonds. “Current class sizes make it easy to fall behind, and a lot of teachers don’t know you so you have to put in effort to be known,” Cissé explained. 

Similarly, Dr. Yu shared, “I imagine that again, for a variety of reasons, less students both in the classroom as well as with grading means being able to develop closer relations. I’m sure there's definitely some pros [to] having a lesser number of students.” After all, it is probable that no Stuyvesant student has ever experienced a schedule full of 25-student classes. There may be benefits offered to the student body that will not reveal themselves until the policy has come to fruition.

Reducing class sizes from 34 students to 25 will undoubtedly have an impact on what it means to learn at Stuyvesant in the future. Some of these effects may be quantifiable, such as how many electives a student can take, but others may be much more difficult to define. An increase in competition when it comes to course selections is not unlikely. Stuyvesant is often characterized by the immense pressure to succeed brought on by teachers and peers alike. This pressure will only increase when fewer students are able to take the classes deemed precursors to that success, such as AP elective courses. At the same time, the impact of individualized attention on intellectual development cannot be overstated. Students should embrace the prospect of forging closer bonds with their teachers and fellow classmates. After all, formulas and history lessons will ultimately fade from a student’s memory, but it’s the human connections that will linger.