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Subtract teachers, add pupils: math of today’s jammed schools

By From page A1 | December 26, 2013

By Motoko Rich

COATESVILLE, Pa. — The recession may have ended, but many of the nation’s school districts that laid off teachers and other employees to cut payrolls in leaner times have not yet replenished their ranks. Now, despite the recovery, many schools face unwieldy class sizes and a lack of specialists to help those students who struggle academically, are learning English as a second language or need extra emotional support.

Donna Guy’s fourth-grade class at Caln Elementary School here is too big — 30 pupils — for the room, so some of them sit halfway into a coat closet. Across town at Rainbow Elementary School, the 36 third-graders in Kristen Pleasanton’s gym class rotate on and off the bench during 25 minutes of seven-a-side soccer games, because she cannot supervise all of them playing at once.

And during social studies class at Scott Middle School, Keith Lilienfeld tries to keep control of a class of 25 students, 10 of whom need special education services, four of whom know little or no English and others who need more challenging work than he has time to give.

“I’m up there putting out fires like you wouldn’t believe,” said Lilienfeld, who used to have the help of two or three classroom aides. “There’s only one of me, and there’s a need for about five of me in there.”

Across the country, public schools employ about 250,000 fewer people than before the recession, according to figures from the Labor Department. Enrollment in public schools, meanwhile, has increased by more than 800,000 students. To maintain prerecession staffing ratios, public school employment should have actually grown by about 132,000 jobs in the past four years, in addition to replacing those that were lost, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Coatesville, a diminished steel town with 7,200 students, used to employ more than 600 teachers, psychologists, reading and math specialists, and other certified personnel. Since 2008, the district has cut close to one-fifth of that staff, according to Angelo Romaniello, the district’s assistant superintendent.

“We didn’t cut to the bone,” said Audra Ritter, a middle school special education teacher and president of the Coatesville Area Teachers Association. “We cut into the bone.”

School districts in other hard-hit states, including California, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina and Texas, are coping with similarly squeezed resources. Along with budget cuts at the federal, state and local levels, rising public school enrollment over the past five years has exacerbated the pinch.

The staffing gap has pushed elementary class sizes to 30 students and more in parts of California, where special state funds had been designated since the mid-1990s to keep classes in kindergarten through third grade capped at 20 students. In Dallas this year, the public school district has applied for more than 200 waivers from the state’s maximum class size of 22 students for kindergarten through fourth grade.

Class sizes in some high schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County in North Carolina have swelled to as many as 40 students, and some guidance counselors are advising up to 500 students. In Cobb County, Ga., where the district has laid off about 1,300 staff members — or about 16 percent of the teaching force — in the past five years, average class sizes in fourth and fifth grades are now about 33 students, five above the state maximum of 28.

Districts are making these difficult trade-offs at a time when schools are raising academic standards and business leaders are pushing schools to prepare a work force with better skills.

“We can’t have the doublespeak where everybody talks about how important education is to our being globally competitive,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, “and then education is not a priority when it comes to funding.”

In Pennsylvania, although the state’s education budget is now above prerecession levels, a large proportion of money is being diverted to replenish underfunded pensions, leaving less for actual classrooms, said Michael Wood, research director at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

The cutbacks have been particularly pronounced in less affluent school districts, which have trouble raising local property taxes or asking parents’ associations to fill in gaps.

Wealthier communities can lean more on parents and local taxpayers. Just 35 miles from Coatesville, in the Lower Merion School District, which shares a border with the ravaged Philadelphia school district, enrollment has swelled by about 15 percent to 7,900 students in the past five years. Property taxes have increased every year since 2008, and even elementary students now study foreign languages. The district has avoided cutting any staff members, leaving class sizes in the low to mid-20s.

Here in Coatesville, by contrast, where more than half of the district’s students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, the school board has twice raised the maximum class size for third through fifth grades in the past five years, with some classes topping out at 33 students.

Staff cuts among reading, special education and English language specialists have hit especially hard.

On a recent afternoon at Scott Middle School, Lilienfeld placed a red rubber ball atop a stool at the front of the classroom. The setup served as a makeshift buzzer in a quiz game intended to help students review for a coming test.

One English-language learner put his head on his desk and refused to participate. Another girl, who receives special education services, spent the entire period doodling on a notepad. When several boys taunted a girl and she responded with an explosive “Shut up!” Lilienfeld ordered her out of the room.

“There is no way I could adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of all the kids in my class,” he said. During the next period, 26 students filed into Lilienfeld’s classroom for a study hall period, which is used to fill out their schedules because the school has cut so many electives.

The cutbacks in staff levels during the recession and its aftermath followed two decades in which the teaching force across the country expanded at a much faster rate than student enrollment.

According to Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, the public school population increased by 24 percent from 1987 to 2012, while the number of working teachers grew by 46 percent.

Teachers say the delicate balance of a class ecosystem, with its range of personalities, academic abilities and social skills, can be upset by just a few more students in the room. Still, research on the importance of class size in helping students learn is mixed. Although a study in Tennessee in the 1980s showed that children benefited from smaller class sizes of 13 to 17 students in the early grades, other studies have shown few effects.

Students, nonetheless, take notice. In Guy’s fourth-grade class in Coatesville, Julian Rodriguez, 9, said the number of students resulted in “too much noise for the other kids.”

Then, mustering the philosophical resilience of a child, Julian, who eagerly waved his hand in the air when Guy asked questions, smiled. “But it’s good because you make a lot of friends,” he said.

New York Times News Service

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