Big classes, big problems

Minneapolis public-school class sizes were supposed to rise this year - but the jump turned out to be bigger than expected for many

South High School social studies teacher Michael Boucher has little time to connect with each of his students one-on-one since he now spends more time than ever just getting down the basics.

With classes that range from 35 to 38 students per 50-minute class, Boucher estimates he will spend less than 30 seconds with every student daily. Subtracting lecture time during 160 teaching days, Boucher estimates each kid would get about 40 one-on-one minutes total by year's end.

&#8220Since it's impossible to give equal attention to everyone, some kids might not have a single conversation with me for the whole year,” he said.

Boucher isn't the only teacher struggling with big classes in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). The district raised class size by four students in each grade level this year to cope with this year's $24 million shortfall.

According to MPS' guidelines, there should be 26 students in K-3, 32 in grades 4-8 and 34 in grades 9-12 (on average) - up from 22, 28 and 30 respectively, last year.

However, early in the year, many classes are even bigger than the newly expanded limits.

At three Southwest schools, parents found kindergarten classes with up to 30 students each - a 36 percent jump from a year ago. That particular increase didn't last; a month into the school year, an additional kindergarten class was introduced at Burroughs Community School, 1501 W. 50th St., Lake Harriet Lower Campus, 4030 Chowen Ave. S. and Barton Open Elementary School, 4237 Colfax Ave. S.

Principals at each school sent similar letters to kids' parents that explained the new classroom situation. They asked for volunteers to move their kids into the fresh classroom - not enticing after new students bonded with each other and their first-ever teacher. Because only a couple of parents volunteered, a lottery decided which kids would be moved.

The principals' notes reassured that &#8220children are resilient” and would adapt to the change.

Parent Mark Vanderhyde, whose son joined the custom kindergarten class located in a portable outside of Lake Harriet's main building, said, &#8220the principal is probably right; kids are resilient.

Still, he spoke for many parents when he added, &#8220This is a critical time in kids' lives. Our son is used to being around a lot of other kids, but most kindergarten kids aren't so social. At least the school was responsive. But it seems like it should've been able to figure this out before school started.”

So what are the reasons for rising class sizes - and classes supersized beyond that?

The money

MPS wasn't able to meet the referendum's goals in part because of inadequate state funding. Although the state raised the basic per-pupil formula 4 percent per pupil, it froze key &#8220categorical revenues” including special education and English Language Learners. In 2004 and 2005, that meant $366 less per Minneapolis student, MPS Legislative Lobbyist Jim Grathwol said.

All students felt the effects because special needs students are integrated into mainstream classrooms - so cuts in these areas meant cuts for everyone. General ed. revenue and compensatory revenue fund special needs program for at-risk kids below grade level, ELL or special ed. Grathwol said that MPS had been able to keep cuts out of the classroom until 2004. This year, the district has nothing more to spare, he said.

Grathwol notes that the $182 per pupil the city got this year is half of what was lost over the previous two years - and doesn't even include inflation, which &#8220robbed some purchasing power.”

Bad predictions

OK, so the money didn't go as far this year. Why did some classes this year turn out even bigger than expected?

Each year, the district makes a prediction of incoming students - which staffers boast is usually right on target. Schools are staffed over the summer based on those predictions.

The district expects its figures to fluctuate; for example, enrollment is higher at the beginning of the year and then it goes down, a process known as &#8220shrinkage” The district anticipates 10 percent attrition based on historical patterns and an estimate of families moving out of the district.

After school starts, the district recounts how many students will likely be staying and then brings in reinforcements as needed. Teachers from the recall list were recalled by seniority, part of a labor agreement with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT).

At Burroughs, the district predicted 130 kindergarteners would show up; 145 actually did. That meant 30 students in the one all-day kindergarten class with Spanish speakers/English Language Learners/Non-native English learners and 29 in the half-day classes.

With the added kindergarten, the full-day session has 28 kids and the half-day classes have 23 kids each.

Current enrollment at Burroughs is 646 students, while the school is allocated for 613. Its capacity is 585. As physical evidence of overcrowding, an additional 60 lockers were ordered to accommodate the overflow.

School Board President Joseph Erickson said the district must change the way it currently calculates the formula for shrinkage. The assumption is that three or four students won't show up in the fall in each school - but actual shrinkage can vary from zero to 20 percent.

Erickson said, &#8220We want the superintendent to look at it per school so that the numbers account for areas where there's no shrinkage. It's not a long-term solution but it'd help.”

For a more permanent fix, Erickson said MPS must create a planning department; it's in the process of establishing a two-person office.

Complicating matters this year was the district's decision last spring to close 12 schools, in response to declining enrollment. The resulting student movement was &#8220a new and unknown variable” for predictors, Grathwol said.

And even when administrators scramble to fix problems at the beginning of the school year, administrative wrinkles can delay a fix.

For instance, when a school gets a new teaching position, teachers on &#8220recall” have seven workdays to decide whether or not they'll take the job. If a teacher rejects the offer, then the next candidate has another seven workdays to accept or deny the offer.

At Lake Harriet Lower, the situation was especially complicated because a kindergarten teacher left the school to accept a promotion elsewhere in the district after school began. That meant that the school had to find two new kindergarten teachers.

For some parents, the October shuffle was a plus. At Lake Harriet, some kids who'd been on a waiting list landed in the new classroom, such as Susanna McMaster's kindergarten daughter. &#8220We're happy because of the class addition. Our daughter Catherine came from Dowling [a Southeast Minneapolis school]. She was on a waiting list. We didn't think there'd be a chance,” McMasters said.

Effects of increased class size

Bigger classes mean more homework - for the teachers. At South, Boucher said there are additional papers to grade and no extra time to do it.

One way he copes is by cutting down the length of reports, &#8220I used to require at least five pages for reports. But now with so many kids it'd be like editing every line of ‘War and Peace' - poorly,” he said.

Boucher can't effectively conduct classroom discussions because the whole class can't fully participate. &#8220You lose the ones that aren't participating,” he notes. You can't do group stuff because there's no room to physically move the desks. It leads to more direct instruction. Kids hate it.”

Boucher regrets that the teacher's role becomes more technical, more as a grader of papers. At least two teachers noted there are some exceptions - for example, it's OK if an orchestra or choir class is big, they said.

There are some misconceptions about the effects of class size. Eighth-graders at Lake Harriet were limited to a choice between art, media or music (not all) because the school wanted to make those special-interest electives smaller classes to explore subjects deeper, said Principal Marshal Seitz.

Fixing the problem

Many parents see the big kindergarten classes at popular schools such as Burroughs and Lake Harriet and worry the problem will repeat itself each year as students advance. Would new classes be added yearly to accommodate them?

Still, most acknowledge that the class size problem is bigger than MPS.

Dean LeDoux's son attends a 3rd-grade class of 30 at Burroughs. The school site council leader is frustrated with the State Legislature and dismayed that private funding - such as money from parents or parent-run fund-raisers - must subsidize public education.

In more and more cases, parent funds are paying for teachers, which can lower class sizes.

Said LeDoux, &#8220I think that parents who're informed in the process are focusing disappointment not on the school but because of the State Legislature. It's making it difficult if not impossible for the School Board to live up to its class size aspirations of the referendum.”

He adds, &#8220While it's admirable that Burroughs was able to raise money and commit it, it's pretty staggering to me that's the only way, parents must privately subsidize apart from the tax base.”

While School Board member Erickson said the district raised classes not by choice, but because it didn't have any other options, he said teachers can adapt instruction to bigger classes. For example, one of Erickson's daughters is in a class of 32 at Marcy Open Elementary, 415 4th Ave. SE.

Instruction is delivered in multiple ways so that all 32 kids are rarely together at once. &#8220We need to group in multiage classrooms. A lot of these schools just have the traditional model.”

Some parents are already talking about another referendum, like earlier ones that promised - and achieved - class size reductions until recently.

School Board Member Lydia Lee, a former teacher, said that she sees arguments for and against another referendum.

&#8220Some people say they can't vote for it because class size is so big and they feel betrayed,” Lee said. &#8220Others say we have to vote for it because class size will only get bigger. We need to paint a clear picture about what will happen if we don't have a referendum. Class size will increase more, with fewer resources and less support.”

State Rep. Frank Hornstein of Linden Hills, who has children in the district - including a daughter in a lab class of 42 - will fight for greater state support. He sees hope in a bill that would amend the state's constitution and cap class size.

The bill would emulate Florida's class-size-reduction amendment that passed in 2002, even though Florida Gov. Jeb Bush fiercely opposed it. The law did not solve all problems - a lot of new teachers were hired at low wages to cope with the amendment's requirements.

Still, within one year, schools went from bottom to middle in both satisfaction and test results, Hornstein noted.

He and others want to create a groundswell that would lead to a draft of the bill for the next bonding year, 2007. Currently, proponents are focusing on spreading the word. Some School Board Members said that they'd be in favor of such a bill, as long as it allowed for some flexibility in some cases.