Though facing a gaping budget deficit in 2008-09, the School Reform Commission has taken steps to reverse what had become an upward trend in class sizes in District elementary schools.
As many as 126 extra teachers will be hired this summer to reduce class size to 22 or smaller at the 35 District elementary schools that are in Corrective Action II status. These are schools that fell short of Adequate Yearly Progress performance targets for five years or more.
The SRC has carved out $15.6 million from a tight budget to devote to this limited class size reduction initiative and to provide each school in the District with at least a part-time art or music teacher.
“We readily acknowledge that fully achieving class size reduction in all kindergarten through third grade classrooms districtwide will be a multi-year initiative,” said SRC chair Sandra Dungee Glenn. “However, we must begin, and we are beginning here and now.”
Commitments to reduce class sizes districtwide, bring back art and music, and focus on schools in Corrective Action II were all part of a SRC statement of priorities last October. Dungee Glenn expressed hope that future budgets would address the other top SRC priorities – adding counselors, nurses, and librarians.
Advocates praised the commitment but said it needed to go farther. “We are pleased that some schools will get smaller class size,” said Sheila Simmons, education coordinator for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, at a City Council hearing on the District budget, “but we need it for all our schools.” Simmons noted that the budget at the same time includes the elimination of 151 teaching positions due to a 3,300-student decline in enrollment.
“We urge you to identify the cost of having all elementary schools have small class size in the early grades and that you help support this initiative,” she added.
The SRC first publicly tackled the problem of growing class sizes in August 2007. At a staff briefing, SRC members received data confirming what parent groups had been saying for more than a year – that class sizes had climbed significantly in grades K-3.
According to the briefing, most elementary schools in spring 2007 had average class sizes of 25 or more in the early grades (see graph). In the years immediately before the 2006 budget crunch, average class sizes of 21 or 22 had been more typical in K-3 classrooms.
Noting “overwhelming” evidence supporting the impact of class size reduction on student achievement, the SRC quickly moved to add 30 more teachers to the lower grades in schools in Corrective Action.
When parent groups continued to hammer on the class size issue and protested the creation of split grades classrooms last fall, the SRC also committed to do away altogether with split grades – which effectively reduced class size further.
But in February, school budgets released by the District included split grade classrooms for next year. Parent organizations once again protested, Dungee Glenn responded, and the budgets were redrafted to eliminate split grades.
Revised school budgets also provided partial funding for an SRC mandate that every school offer its students art or music instruction.
Schools with fewer than 500 students must now hire an art or music teacher for at least two days per week. Schools with enrollments up to 1,000 must have a three-day-per-week art or music teacher, and schools of 1000 or more must have a full-time teacher. The District invested $6.7 million in this move, which subsidized half the cost of this modest level of arts instruction.