Last year when Community Unit District 300 teachers walked the picket line, advocating for change during contract negotiations, they chanted about how their working conditions were students' learning conditions.
One of their signs said 45 is a speed limit, not a class size.
Monday night, school board members in the Carpentersville-based district heard an update on the start of school and the significantly reduced class sizes everyone returned to under a new teachers contract.
"As a group we've actually made real and powerful change in this district," said teachers union President Mike Williamson to school board members, thanking them for the decisions they made last year.
Kevin Pokorny, a fifth-grade teacher at Eastview, has 21 students in his classroom. Last year he had 36. That means he has more time to dedicate to each individual student, more time for their parents, and more time and energy to collaborate with fellow teachers.
Pokorny is working with two new colleagues this year and he told board members the reduced class size means he has time to mentor them and also learn from them. The two-way professional development benefits students every day, Pokorny said.
"I've been teaching for 22 years," Pokorny said. "This is the best start to a school year that I've ever had."
Middle schools across the district went from having 232 core classes with 33 or more students to 39 having that many, according to enrollment numbers. They went from 97 classes of 36 or more students to one.
District 300 high schools have more classes with 33 to 35 students because of the complexity of course selection, but even they saw a reduction in the largest classes. Last year 51 of them had 36 or more students. This year there are three such classes.
Williamson is one of the teachers who experienced managing more than 45 students in a single class -- sophomore English.
"Seeing that the 45-person class that I had a couple years literally couldn't happen in this year's environment is a very powerful thing," Williamson said.
Enrollment numbers show average class sizes much lower at the elementary level, too. At Eastview, the averages ranged from 26 to 36 students for kindergarten through fifth grade during the 2012-13 school year. This year they range from 19 to 25.
The class size reductions followed almost a year of contract negotiations and a one-day strike last December. One of the key challenges in the district since then has been to mend the relationships that were strained throughout the negotiations process.
It seems the 2013-14 school year has kicked off with that work well on its way. While Superintendent Michael Bregy admitted there were still issues to work out, he said Monday it has been an "exceptional start" for the district with plenty of excitement and energy on all sides.