The District finally released the first, partial data about what happened to class sizes as a result of efforts to reduce them in the early grades this year. The promised reductions have not all been achieved.
Lowering class size in grades K-3 was the most expensive single initiative in the first year of the Imagine 2014 strategic plan, costing $23 million.
The numbers released January 29 were districtwide averages and only for the District’s Empowerment Schools. In kindergartens across these schools, the average class size this year is 20.7 students.
In grades 1-3, the average class size is just slightly higher, 21.5 students.
The District set targets for maximum class size, not average size. No information is available on how many classrooms comply with the maximum.
However, the kindergarten average for Empowerment Schools slightly exceeds the District’s promised maximum class size of 20 students in kindergarten. Hence, it is unlikely that most kindergarten classrooms are in compliance with the new limit.
Class size in grades 1-3 in Empowerment Schools was to top out at 22 students. While the reported average class size is just a fraction below that, again it is likely that many classrooms are over the promised limit.
“We think the District should ramp up its efforts to get class size to where it should be,” responded Gerald Wright of Parents United for Public Education, father of a 3rd and an 8th grader at J.S. Jenks School.
“We need to know more, and then everyone can have a chance to have a real discussion,” Wright added. “If it’s an average size, then somewhere it could be way over and somewhere else you may have achieved great success.”
The District had originally planned to spend $34 million on class-size reduction this year, but during budget revisions in the fall, that amount was cut by $11 million. Chief Business Officer Michael Masch said the District would reach its targeted class sizes with the smaller amount.
District spokesperson Fernando Gallard pointed to three reasons that some class sizes exceed the limit. First, he said, where classrooms were only two or three students over the maximum, the numbers might not trigger adding another teacher. He said some classrooms grew beyond the limit due to student mobility after rosters were set in the fall. Finally, “we have schools in which you can’t add another classroom” because of space constraints, he said.
To lower class sizes, the District hired 278 additional teachers in the early grades last fall. Each added classroom teacher at a school results in reduced class size in all classrooms in that grade.
For example, a school with 84 1st graders and three teachers can reduce class size in those classrooms from 28 to 21 by adding a fourth teacher.
But with the new teachers spread across 176 elementary schools, the typical school received only one or two additional teachers, reducing class size in only one or two of the four grades targeted for reduction.
The Empowerment School class size averages are below typical class sizes from the recent past. A District report on class size in 2007 revealed that most schools had grade K-3 class sizes averaging 25 students or more, with the average size per school ranging anywhere from 16 to 31 students.
Improvements in class size are being noticed, based on early results from a “community audit” by the Cross City Campaign for School Reform. This local coalition has interviewed more than 200 parents, teachers, and students in 30 District schools to ask whether they see evidence of the recent increases in state education funding.
“Class size is moving downward, which is absolutely moving in the right direction,” said Jonathan Cetel, regional organizer for Good Schools Pennsylvania, summarizing the findings so far.
“But there are still schools that are shy of meeting those goals,” he reported. In most cases where classrooms were larger than the prescribed limits, the excess was no more than a few students, Cetel said.