School Climate & Safety

Class-Size Cuts in Calif. Bring Growing Pains

By Robert C. Johnston — April 30, 1997 7 min read
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In her 24 years as a California teacher, Susie Anella has seen plenty of ideas for improving schools come and go. But she says none of them beats the state’s push for smaller classes, which is why she has just 20 students this year.

For once, there is time for all of her 1st graders to read daily journal entries aloud to her, and then correct spelling and grammatical errors. The students also read in small groups with an aide every day.

“This has always been my wish,” said Ms. Anella, who teaches at Doyle Elementary School here and is used to classes of 28 or more.

Ms. Anella’s class is what lawmakers had in mind last summer when they passed one of the costliest school initiatives in the nation: a $1 billion plan to shrink K-3 classes from an average of 29 students to just 20.

The voluntary program requires participating schools to reduce class sizes in 1st and 2nd grades initially and then later to shrink sizes in either kindergarten or 3rd grade. Enacted just weeks before the new school year, 853 of 895 eligible districts have signed on, and the size of the average 1st and 2nd grade class statewide has plummeted to 19 students.

But local and state funding concerns, coupled with a shortage of classroom space and credentialed teachers, threaten to slow, if not outright stop, further expansion of the program. Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and other top elected officials are debating the next move for the effort.

State Sen. Steve Peace, a Democrat from San Diego, was not alone when he told colleagues on the budget committee that the governor’s budget plan to expand the program “seems to reflect a document driven more by political bandwagon-hopping than sound judgment.”

Diving Right In

Fueled by explosive population growth, California’s classrooms have been among the most crowded in the nation in recent years. And many educators here say it’s no coincidence that the state ranks near the bottom on national reading and math tests.

But some observers were still surprised by the quick and overwhelming enthusiasm for reducing class sizes.

In San Diego, the city school system had to add 80 portable classrooms. Just over half of this year’s 18,400 new, reduced-size classrooms opened in portables. ( “Calif. Scurries To Find Space for Students,” Oct. 9, 1996.)

Judith Ernst, the principal at 745-student Doyle Elementary, cajoled her husband and some parents into rearranging classroom walls last summer. The result: Six new classrooms were ready by her fall opening.

Old classrooms lost a third of their space. But with fewer students, classes are quieter and teachers are feeling more relaxed, Ms. Ernst said.

“This is the most positive thing that has happened,” the 26-year educator added. “I can’t think of anything else like it.”

And it was no small task to get all 113 of San Diego’s elementary schools ready for the program. The 134,000-student system hired 276 teachers for the smaller classes, 30 of whom had no full-time credentials.

“It was so needed that everyone had the attitude of ‘let’s do it,’” said San Diego school board President Ron Ottinger.

The Price of Change?

But Frank Till, the deputy superintendent for the San Diego schools, admits that the unlicensed teachers “create a concern that less experienced teachers are in harder-to-staff schools.”

Worries about the qualifications of teachers recruited to meet the increased demand have dogged the initiative from the outset. (“Plan for Smaller Classes Sets Off Hiring Spree in Calif.,” Sept. 4, 1996.)

Statewide, 55 percent of the 18,400 teachers hired for the program are entry-level teachers, the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan adviser to the state legislature, estimated in a recent report. Slightly more than half of those first-year teachers have credentials, the report added.

“What we’re pouring into schools is almost a whole culture of teachers who aren’t going to be well-enough prepared,” argued David D. Marsh, a professor of education at the University of Southern California and an expert on curriculum and teaching.

State officials hope that local staff development will speed up the learning curve for the new hires. “It should be sequential, high-quality, and coherent,” said Barbara Baseggio, the administrator of the state education department’s elementary education office.

As the start-up frenzy fades, attention is shifting to the classroom. And teachers like Stacy Stark of the 780-student Beverly Vista Elementary School in Beverly Hills have a lot to say.

On a recent morning, she sat cross-legged on the floor of her new modular classroom, talking quietly with three of her 20 2nd graders about reading.

“I’m reading Charlotte’s Web,” Mallory Moscovitch, 7, said.

“And what’s the name of the little girl in the book?,” Ms. Stark asked.

As Mallory looked for the answer, Ms. Stark cast a stern glance at the other 17 students. If the glare was meant to intimidate, it didn’t work. The students were too busy working on a writing assignment to notice her.

One reason for their attentiveness might be that the space between students cuts down on distractions. In a nearby 5th grade class, by contrast, 35 students are packed shoulder to shoulder in a stuffy modular.

Ms. Stark’s principal, Nadine Breuer, credits small classes with reducing special education and discipline referrals and with raising early reading levels.

Making It Work

But not every school is as fortunate as Beverly Vista and Doyle.

Many crowded schools have put 40 students in one room with two teachers, using a loophole in the program that will close next year.

The 14,300-student Oxnard district, one hour north of Los Angeles, is one of those systems.

The farming community known for its strawberries also produces up to 500 new students a year. And with 30 students per class, the crowded system is forced to use four year-round calendars.

“This is the best thing to happen to education in California in years,” Oxnard schools Superintendent Bernard J. Korenstein said of smaller classes.

Unfortunately, it took eight months for the district to receive and install the 45 modular units needed for the new classes. In the meantime, several 40-student classes had formed.

In one such class, Kim Cruise, a first-year teacher, shares a 1st grade with 10-year veteran Tobi Schwenk at Emilie Ritchen School. During a recent math class, Ms. Cruise talked to students about the concept of volume while Ms. Schwenk quietly reprimanded troublemakers and answered queries.

It helps that the two women get along, Ms. Schwenk said. She added that most teachers backed the option only as a short-term solution.

“I feel that I’m responsible for 40 students, not 20,” Ms. Schwenk said. “I wouldn’t do this again. It’s not fair to 1st graders and not fair for teachers and the stress level is much higher.”

Growing Pains

Schools face a similar dilemma when they ponder expanding the program.

For example, Doyle Elementary, located in the middle-class suburb of University City north of downtown San Diego, was built in 1979 on 9.7 acres. Officials there hope to reduce class sizes in kindergarten and 3rd grade next year.

Then, consider Jackson Elementary School. The crowded inner-city school in San Diego was built in 1948 on 6.5 acres. Designed to hold 350 students, Jackson now has 1,200. Jackson has three classes of 40 students each that will be split up next year when 5th graders move into a nearby middle school. But there is little hope of reducing class sizes in kindergarten and 3rd grade because there is no more space.

It’s arguable that the Jackson Elementary students have a greater need for smaller classes than their middle-class peers do. Two-thirds are from immigrant backgrounds and have limited proficiency in English; almost all qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

Issues for Policymakers

Equal access is only part of the debate over the program’s future.

Gov. Wilson has proposed spending an additional $300 million to allow smaller classes at four levels, from kindergarten through grade 3. Critics say his proposal falls short because it would raise per-pupil spending on smaller classes from $650 to just $666.

State schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin wants $880 per pupil for all four classes. The legislature is debating the state budget and will consider numerous bills on reduced class sizes.

Each leader supports a proposed $1 billion state bond for facilities in 1998 to overcome the space crisis, which the legislature has yet to approve.

Others worry that smaller classes have been sold as a panacea. Mr. Marsh of usc sees smaller classes as one leg of a three-legged stool. The other two legs are statewide standards and assessments--two controversial components that are not in place.

But waiting until all of the pieces were assembled would have meant missed opportunities.

Said San Diego’s Mr. Ottinger, “If you’re going to do something quickly, then do it quickly.”

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