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

By Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 21, 2013 02:30 PM

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

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Comments (37)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2013 3:57 pm
But we have football! Priorities. They clearly aren't about helping children or empowering teachers.
Submitted by Taron (not verified) on August 21, 2013 5:53 pm
What's important is that Hite and his staff retain their 6-figure salaries. That's all that matters. Stop complaining about class sizes!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 8:44 am
You got that. And our governor is the highest paid governor, but insists we take cuts in salary!
Submitted by First Grade Teacher (not verified) on August 21, 2013 4:48 pm
Well said.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on August 21, 2013 4:38 pm
I'm assuming that when Dale writes the the SDP would "require hiring 101 new teachers" to prevent split-grade classrooms he is actually referring to recalling laid-off teachers rather than actually hiring new people. But then, given the suspension of seniority rules and what the SDP is asking for in their contract offer about recalling laid-off teachers as they see fit, maybe not.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2013 5:48 pm
Dale is a she and recalling is still rehiring. Once you're laid off you're not an SDP employee.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on August 21, 2013 10:11 pm
Hmmm, I've run across several males named Dale, but never a female; names can surprise you even when they seem obvious. But to get to the real point, why didn't she just say "recall 101 teachers" rather than "hire 101 new teachers"? A recalled teacher is hardly "new" by any common definition of that term. Thus my comment, based on the rather interesting wording of the statement. As one of the 676 laid-off teachers, I am quite aware that I am currently unemployed, thank you very much.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 7:17 am
Sorry about your layoff. Hopefully this will be resolved in a way that recalls all old teachers still looking for a job by hiring them into the newly recreated positions. I think the wording can go either way. They will be new positions once they are reopened hiring new staff... who will in fact be recalled 'old' teachers.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 11:52 am
You would have to have the appropriate K-6 certification for what they are talking about. In which case, if you were a laid off high school teacher you will not get re-hired in this scenario.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2013 5:36 pm
A teacher is being removed from my school and split classes for 2nd/3rd are happening. However we will have 35+ students in each class. Is this legal? They are also removing a special for 1 day.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2013 6:39 pm
It's against the contract but come the new school year there is no contract and the District's bargaining position has been to remove class size limits. Given what the SRC did under Act 46 (which follows the law ... but the law might not be constitutional) I'm not sure what to think. I don't think their resolution last week directly addressed it, though. This is one reason why a new contract which protects students is important.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2013 2:27 pm
I don't understand what this means. A contract is for school district employees, not students. Challengeing Act 46 is what has to happen to *determine* whether it's constitutional or not.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2013 6:30 pm
Putting thirty or more children in a split, especially in grades where they are learning how to read, is unconscionable and borderline criminal.
Submitted by Steve2weven (not verified) on August 21, 2013 7:11 pm
Unconscionable, yes. Criminal, unfortunately not. It is sad that the best expression of our valuing students is not in the school code but in the teacher's contract. The fact is that despite how unconscionable the underfunding of the district is, it seems to be perfectly legal (although I would love for the courts to step in and disagree with my legal assessment).
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on August 21, 2013 7:20 pm
Yes, if they really cared about children they would have maximum class sizes of 22 and a reading specialist for every child who falls behind in reading. Just sayin'.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 3:38 am
Welcome to the wild,wild west where anything goes.
Submitted by Joan Taylor on August 21, 2013 6:28 pm
And how sad it is that our contract has to protect students. This should be the SRC's job.
Submitted by Teachin' (not verified) on August 21, 2013 8:42 pm
It would be nice if this article detailed how much of a disservice split-grade classrooms are to students. They only get half the instructional time at their level they would in a one-grade classroom. If I were a parent of a student in a split-grade room, I would raise holy hell until he or she was removed from it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 12:23 am
I was in a split grade classroom in the 60's, 5th and 6th grade. From what I can remember it was a smaller class and I don't recall it being problematic.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 12:33 am
The 2010s are not the 1960s. Imagine having to prepare two sets of students for two sets of standardized tests.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 7:13 am
Point well taken. It is going to be a problem. I didn't think of the standardized testing that did not go on in the 60's.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 3:58 am
The truth is with all the various levels of students especially in K-2 we already are teaching split grades. Differentiated instruction people. I've taught 1st grade with kids on a PreK very below basic to advanced 2nd grade levels. Once you identify the children's levels its really not that difficult. I also have a early childhood background where kids range from 3-5. I admit in the beginning I felt like Laura Ingalls in a one room schoolhouse but I made it work because I had to for my kids. Yes it can be challenging at times especially when you don't have on level materials for all of your kids. If the SDP decides to do this I hope that schools pair the split classes with accomplished educators.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 7:03 am
This true across the board. Many neighborhood high school classes have students reading at a 3 - 5th grade level with students closer to reading on grade level. There are few materials unless created by the teacher. K-3 is extremely important to have most students reading on grade level. Split classes will hurt. Then, students in 4 - 6 grade need to improve comprehension so they are prepared for high school. Again, split classes won't help.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 10:20 am
I don't take issue with the reading levels, nor with the math, because as you've stated, we already have a wide range of abilities/levels in single grade classrooms. However, the science and social studies curriculums are not the same, which necessitates teaching both content areas at two different grade levels with 30+ kids and NO support. There are only so many hours in a day, and I do need to eat and use the facilities on occasion. I'm not a miracle worker- Just a mere mortal, trying to do my best for the children in my classroom.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 6:25 pm
I also was in a split 5th/6th grade in the late 60's. Had a great Phila. public school teacher & learned loads. Unfortunately, when I got to 6th grade I discovered that I had learned the 6th grade curriculum already & completely missed the 5th grade. Does anyone else think that missing a whole year of school was a big deal? Parents whose kids are in split classes should worry.
Submitted by Teachin' (not verified) on August 22, 2013 7:35 pm
Keep in mind back in the late 60s, they were teaching you toward subject mastery, rather than teaching to the test. A split classroom is a disaster in the making these days.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on August 21, 2013 10:12 pm
In this atmosphere in which there is no money for books, supplies, supervision or other basics the Corbett administration is insisting on a longer day. Why? To keep the kids in an unsafe situation longer? They do not even know why they want a longer day but being hard on the teachers trying to hold the Philadelphia Schools together just feels right to the Republicans in Harrisburg. They create an intolerable situation and they abuse the people trying to make it work.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on August 22, 2013 10:31 am
Yes, it's part of the Shock Doctrine--They create an unworkable situation and then blame you for the unworkable situation, calling you irresponsible, lazy, a union bum, a union bum, a union bum and a union bum. This is exactly why the PFT should give back NOTHING and fight forever if necessary.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2013 1:11 pm
I totally agree with you Joe, Poogie and Teachin. I look at how we are always told the experts knows best. However, those same experts who we are told to parrot from have left the classroom. Why? Because they probably could not teach, did not have classroom management skills from the beginning, go write a book to keep an income, and gain or had friends in high places to push an agenda. So what happens? We are blamed using the experts advice, and then demonized more. The parents are hoodwinked into believing what has been said generalizing all public school teachers. As far as a longer school day goes, I believe we are being set up to be babysitters as best. By around 1:30/2:00 in the afternoon the students are either wired or tired and don't want to do much. Second, there are after school programs that are run by an outside entity using school district facilities, that are being paid a stipend of some sorts with monies coming from the state and some of it paid by parents. Third, a split classroom would reduce teacher numbers and would be a disaster being as though we are teaching to a test and not for real basic experience and knowledge like how was previously done when teachers like many of us were born before the 80's were taught. But in a nutshell, it all boils down to what is really important to the powers that be. MONEY!!! It rules. Those with the most money WINS! Study the game MONOPOLY. It seems that is the name of the game. It's not really about children, teachers, or education. It's about who can get the most money by any means necessary while undermining the public and creating scapegoats to take the fall, never minding the fact that laws and policies have been enacted by these same folks and politicians who are investing in prisons to take away rights. All of you have good points but look where we seem to be headed into. I believe the each state knows it has gotten over its head in taking on this testing agenda. The government doesn't really want to fund education agendas but want to make everything look equal, even though it is not. But at the same time funding prison agendas heavily, but that isn't being talked about. Eventually, I think those of us will be required to pay for education for our own children on our own or face the fact your child will not be able to attend school. Education seems to be going private again. When public education has been wiped out, all teachers fired/laid off and they require education be paid for, the next scapegoats will be the parents. With newer laws that will work against them more than before. There is no real discipline in school, the homes are out of control more and more, and education is not valuable anymore. Sorry for ranting. I feel all of this is ties in together but on so many different levels. Sorry y'all.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on August 24, 2013 2:00 pm
The Prison System is a cottage industry as they used to say and 2 of the 3 new ones funded by Corbett are privately run--big surprise !! There's still time for the people to fight and win but to say the least, time is no longer on our side. Big money talks so "The People" have to respond in kind. Otherwise, we'll have the same kind of Caste System as India and we'll go back to Jim Crow and policies like that. This isn't a complicated dilemma; Either the rich will control everything again as before unions or we will continue to have the appropriate ying and yang that unions provide, a buffer from Tyranny. Privatization is code for Tyranny no matter where it raises its ugly head no matter what the talking heads tell you.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on August 24, 2013 2:30 pm
Not for nothin but "By any means necessary" is exactly how we have to fight this. I like your choice of words, more force, less mouse, more action, less theory.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 10:48 am
Taking note that education itself is never in the mix (in any discussion about schools).. Money, seats, pensions, teacher evaluation,, testing, school choice on and on. Not ONE word about what children are actually taught, how they learn, and their thought processes. This what you get when education is market driven.
Submitted by Go-Eagles (not verified) on August 22, 2013 11:31 am
Well said. The market has driven parents and students from public schools to charter schools and I'm making that statement in the context over the past several years when the entire discussion is on money. The market also keeps those parents and students in private and parochial schools. People read the headlines and seek or keep other avenues.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 24, 2013 1:14 pm
Preach! Preach on! Most definitely!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 2:19 pm
No, you misread me Go- Eagles. This is not a good thing, just the opposite.
Submitted by Go-Eagles (not verified) on August 22, 2013 3:29 pm
I thoroughly understood where you were coming from.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2013 2:03 pm
Other avenues are fine, but not at OUR expense. Why should my taxpayer funds go toward "other avenues" that I don't know about and are unaccountable. It's cheating the publc really and starving the SDP.

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