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Class Size Crisis

What does the new math—less money and fewer teachers—mean for our public schools and your kids?


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Last year, teacher Chris O’Connell had 20 students in his first-grade classroom at Bancroft Elementary, a bustling 42-year-old campus set amid spacious ranch houses in Walnut Creek’s Ygnacio Valley. At the start of this school year, he entered a combined third- and fourth-grade classroom, with 28 young faces looking up at him.

“It was scary,” says O’Connell, 36, whose youthful, easy-going manner might seem to help him face those challenges. But he truly worried that he would not be able to get to know the academic strengths and weaknesses of all 28 students, as well as the personalities, special talents, and challenges that would affect their learning. He wondered how he would find time to check in with each student every day to make sure each was grasping new concepts and getting along with classmates.

His fears were largely confirmed. Nearing the halfway point in the 2009–10 school year, O’Connell says, “I’m just starting to get to know all of them.”

Class sizes at Bancroft Elementary have swelled from 20 to 30 or more kids because the Mt. Diablo Unified School District was one of the Bay Area districts hardest hit by last year’s horrific state budget crisis. The state cut $5 billion dollars out of public education—and in many districts that meant cutting teachers and having more students in each classroom than the preferred 20.
In some cases, districts were able to avoid serious cuts by raising money locally with parcel taxes and parent fundraising. But, many districts still got hit, including Walnut Creek, Pleasanton, Dublin, and Livermore Valley, which had to raise K-3 class sizes to 25 students.

Now, with the state expected to cut another $2 billion from K-12 funding, even districts with parcel taxes and strong community support—including those in Lamorinda and San Ramon Valley—say they, too, are looking at widespread teacher layoffs and class size increases for the 2010–11 academic year.

Last year, the Acalanes Union High School District, which has some of the Bay Area’s top-scoring high schools, had to cut $4 million, lay off 19 teachers, and increase its world history class size to 31 students. Parents rallied to raise around $800,000 for the district’s four high schools to help save programs, including keeping classes small in ninth grade. This year, the district, facing another $4.8 million in cuts and 57 teacher and staff layoffs, doesn't have that option. “It’s just flat cutting,” says Superintendent John Stockton.

Left to be decided is exactly how much the state will cut and just how large the classes will be. Some districts may increase their K-3 and ninth grade classes by two or three kids. Some may add as many as 10 or more.

Class size has been a controversial, highly debated topic in education. On one side are teachers, principals, administrators, and most parents, who say it is simply common sense that students learn best in small classes, where there is more individual, day-to-day interaction with a teacher. They cite studies, such as Tennessee’s Project STAR, conducted in the late 1980s, which showed that students in small K-3 classes did better than students in large classes on test scores and on measures of behavior and attendance. Those gains were especially strong the more years students spent in small classes and continued as students reached high school.

On the other side are some academics and fiscal conservatives who say schools should not put so much money into keeping class sizes small. Instead, schools should focus on improving teacher quality—especially by buying out less talented senior teachers who command the highest salaries. They believe that the Project STAR and other oft-quoted studies offer mixed or inconclusive results.

Academic debates aside, many parents are wondering and worrying right now about what larger class sizes will mean for their kids—whether their child is a high achiever, or one who struggles. In visiting dozens of classrooms in different districts, Diablo found what could be lost for kids’ learning experiences—as well as strategies that schools are employing to help students and teachers adjust to what is likely to be an ongoing crisis in California public education.

Teacher Chris O’Connell’s boss, Bancroft Elementary Principal Linda Schuler, was intent on making her school a welcoming place for her students this fall—despite the larger classes. She and her staff spent much of the summer rearranging classrooms to make room for more desks and bodies. They also worked at enlisting parents, who already help out quite a bit, to volunteer even more hours in classrooms and in doing behind-the-scenes jobs such as filing and stuffing envelopes. Schuler also spent quite a bit of time developing better plans for crowd control.

Parents helped by raising $65,000 to hire 11 part-time teaching assistants. These paraprofessionals serve as “extensions,” Schuler says, of teachers in a variety of ways. In the classroom, they help individual students who are trying to solve math problems and learning to write paragraphs. The assistants might read a story or work with a small group  while the teacher meets with kids individually, or intervenes in disputes.

Just as important, the assistants help teachers move these young students through their transitions. That is, from one activity to another. That gives teachers time to prepare for the next lesson or to take a few minutes to work individually with a student. The assistants line up children in single or double file to head off to music lessons, the computer room, the library, or recess, and back again.

On a January morning at Bancroft Elementary, the 31 first-graders in teacher Deanne Giffin’s class take several minutes to return from recess and assemble outside her room, giggling and wriggling all the way. She will take them into the school garden for a lesson on how plants, even those that look dead in winter, are still full of life.
To assemble, each student stands on a black pawprint (belonging to the school’s bobcat mascot) etched into a walkway. Schuler says the school rushed to etch new pawprints outside classrooms last summer, after getting word that more kids would be in each class.

These pawprints represent one of the simple crowd-control techniques employed at Bancroft. As Schuler watches these kids line up, she notes that it takes a class of 31 first-graders more time to organize than a class of 20. Kids in the lower grades are still learning the basics of how to “do school”—how to line up outside their classroom, how to hold a pencil. 

Giffin says she has less one-on-one time with students, even though the kids in her class, at least on tests, are keeping up with the reading, writing, and math required of them by state standards.

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