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Countdown, Day 19: Facing the threat of split-grade classrooms

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A big way for school districts to save money is to hire fewer teachers. And one way to hire fewer teachers is to fill each classroom with the maximum number of students allowed under the teachers' contract and to use "split grades," in which students on two grade levels are mixed together.

For instance, if there are 44 1st graders and 44 2nd graders in a school, they could have two 1st grades and two 2nd grades, each with 22 students. But if the pressure is on to hire fewer teachers, they could have one 1st grade with 30 students (the contractual limit for K-3 classrooms), one 2nd grade with 30 students, and a split-grade classroom with 14 1st graders and 14 2nd graders. The split-grade classroom in this case saves the District the salary and benefits cost of one teacher -- more than $100,000.

On and off over the last two decades, the District has tried to reduce class size -- using federal money and other sources of revenue -- and to avoid split grades. Split-grade classrooms have virtually disappeared from the District since 2008.

But in tight times, the larger classes and split grades come back.

Before Superintendent William Hite decided he could budget the $50 million promised from the city, he was planning for more than 100 split-grade classrooms, potentially involving 3,000 students, in grades one through three.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the plan was for 37 classes combining 1st and 2nd graders, and 64 classes combining 2nd and 3rd graders. An earlier plan for some 3rd-4th grade splits was scrapped. Fourth grade has a higher class-size limit -- 33 rather than 30.

Some of the funding secured from the city last week is being aimed at split grades. Gallard said that "the $50 million will eliminate some but not all of them." Final numbers won't be available until an accounting of the $50 million is made later this week, he said.

Eliminating the 101 split-grade classrooms could require hiring 101 new teachers, which would cost about $11 million.

There is a school of thought that says mixing students of different ages in one classroom, especially in the lower grades, can be used to pedagogical advantage. But that requires planning and careful selection of students, not to mention teacher training and buy-in -- none of which happens when grades are split as a money-saving tool. In the current political and fiscal atmosphere, it is hard to imagine that there will be the time or the money to invest in making the most of having mixed-age classrooms.

There have been a few experiments in some District schools over the years with mixed-age classes, although for the most part District teachers don't like them. The 2004 Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract restricted split grades.

Former superintendent Paul Vallas worked to eliminate them, but they came back in the 2006-07 budget crisis. In the face of parent protests, the District made an effort the following year to reduce class size and get rid of split grades, devoting $16 million to the effort.

This year? Stay tuned.


The School District of Philadelphia faces an unprecedented situation – uncertainty over whether it will be in a position to open safe and functioning schools in September.

This feature, appearing each weekday, is an effort to highlight developments and motivate action as we get closer to the beginning of the school year. We encourage readers to send us information about both concerns and breakthroughs to countdown@thenotebook.org.

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Dale Mezzacappa

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Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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