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Schools in Crisis: Challenges of Large Class Sizes

February 21, 2011

By Stacia Kalinoski

EUGENE, Ore. — One 4J middle school teacher’s situation may sum up the problem of large classes sizes best.  The student-teacher is supposed to have his own desk, but students are currently sitting on it because there’s no room for their own desks.

Here’s a look at the numbers now.

The average 4J student to teacher ratio for grades K-3 is 24 to 1.  For grades 4-12, it’s 26 to 1.

But with budget cuts, those ratios are expected to increase by three to four students across the board next year.

At Bethel schools, most elementary and middle school teachers stare at somewhere between 31 and 36 kids.

In Bethel’s high schools, history classrooms squeeze in the most students at around 40.  The superintendent there says it’s impossible to make the statement that one grade level will be impacted the most.

Numbers only tell part of the story.

“My seventh period is 40.  They took two small sections of around 20 and combined it,” said Asher Tubman, South Eugene physics teacher.

“We have some first grade classes at 29 and 27,” said Jennifer Haliski, Prairie Mountain Principal.

If more is better, then most local school districts have nothing to complain about.

“When you start getting in the high 30s, it’s sort of a tipping point for me,” said Joyce Johnson, Cal Young Staff Development Specialist.

When it comes to education, and specifically when it comes to class sizes, more is the exact opposite of better.

It’s hard enough trying to understand calculus when you’re up close, so imagine being 56 kids deep in the back of the classroom.

“Sometimes I have to stand up to see the board because other people’s heads are in the way,” said David Falk, South Eugene sophomore.

And he’s one of the lucky ones, being he has somewhere to sit.

“In my history class this year, there’s not enough desks.  Three or four kids have to sit on the windowsill every day,” said Hannah Claussenius-Kalman, South Eugene junior.

“I’ll tell you what my students tell me.  We can’t fit any more kids in our classroom.  Where are they going to sit?” said George Russell, 4J Superintendent.

“I had two new students enroll on Tuesday.  I had to make a plea for more desks,” said Joyce Johnson, Cal Young Staff Development Specialist who helps struggling learners.

But numbers and ratios don’t really tell the whole story.

It’s the effect those numbers have that matters, and it’s an effect South Eugene physics teacher Asher Tubman says can be seen on his kids’ report cards.

“I would say I’ve seen maybe a 20 percent drop in performance,” Tubman said.

The issues begin from the start.

“I mean, how do you run herd out of 40 kids?” said Charles Wright.

At the elementary school level, it’s as much about teaching kids to behave as it is about teaching them their ABCs.  The younger a child is, the harder it is to get them to sit still.

“My child right now in third grade is a boy, and boys are a little bit rambunctious.  I think if there’s too many kids in his class, he’s more likely to pay less attention and he’s not going to get the one-on-one time on the subjects he might be having trouble on,” said a Parker parent.

And as they get older, the challenges get harder to overcome.

“I don’t do a lot of lecturing.  I tend to go work with individual table groups,” said Angie Ruzika.

Ruzika has seen her average science class expand to 31 students at Cal Young Middle School.

The expansion forces her to make a choice.  She can alter her style by doing less hands-on work or forge ahead, knowing she may not get to everyone every time.

“So in terms of what kids are learning, if I’m not getting there as often, they’re probably not getting as much from me,” Ruzika said.

It’s also much harder to give proper feedback.  Many teachers don’t have time to grade each paper.  Instead they just check off whether the student completed the task and overlook whether they did the work the right way.

“What takes the most time is the writing.  And when you have more kids, it’s the grading and the evaluating of that,” Stater said.

“You have to find a way to cut corners,” said Tom Cantwell, language arts teacher.  Cantwell says he has a shortage of materials and can’t send books home.

So who is it that suffers the most in this model?  The answer to that question is still up for debate.

“I’m really concerned about our top achievers and what this is going to do for addressing this pocket of kids who will really benefit from more enrichment and advanced opportunities,” Johnson said.

Johnson, however, does not teach advanced math or AP English.  She works specifically with the struggling learners.

“If our teachers aren’t able to really get in there and work with those kids, we’re going to start seeing the pattern of them falling further and further behind,” Johnson said.

While some worry about the top and others the bottom, many kids say it’s everyone in between that tend to go unnoticed.

“I feel like there’s the kids that are high advanced, and then I feel like there’s the lower kids.  I think they get more attention.  But just average students I think get, the middle students, don’t get as much attention because the teacher is focused on the top and the bottom,” Adyson Bryant, Cal Young seventh grader.

In the end, each teacher has their own philosophy on how to deal with it.

“You attempt to sort of teach to the middle and then loop back to get the kids who didn’t get it,” Johnson said.

“Sometimes I’ll take a recess just to spend one-on-one time with kids,” said Barbara Stater, Holt fifth grade teacher.

“We’re covering exactly what needs to be covered and cutting out any extraneous material.  Like while we would like to study butterflies in second grade, sometimes we have to make sure, in these times we’re cutting days, that we stick to just what the state calls for,” said Colt Gill, Bethel Superintendent.

It’s a situation that not only calls for a new approach by educators, but places more emphasis on parents’ roles as well.

“If you can help in the classroom, you’re not just helping your children but all the children there,” said one parent.

And don’t expect the trend to slow anytime soon.

“I think it’s going to be horrible, and that’s why I struggle very much to figure out some way to keep the ratio change as low as possible,” Russell said.

It’s a gloomy forecast that forces everyone to try and see the sun through the clouds even if it’s not always there.

“There’s some things that we can’t control, so I try to stay positive and upbeat,” said Jennifer Haliski, Prairie Mountain Principal.

“I’m just amazed at how they just step up and do whatever it takes,” said Nancy Golden, Springfield Superintendent.

Staffing ratio notices go out to 4J schools on Feb. 23, and schools will be asked to develop two staffing plan scenarios for next fall.

But the flip side to this issue is when those classrooms go from 40 plus students to zero on furlough days.

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