Friday, September 14, 2012

City schools try to find balance for class sizes - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Pittsburgh Public Schools vowed to increase class sizes this fall to save money, but parent Donna Marzan never thought it would mean her sixth-grader would end up in a class of 37 students at Pittsburgh Brookline K-8.

"That's a lot for one person to handle no matter how good you are as a teacher," said Ms. Marzan.

The Brookline problem got bigger during this week -- each of two classes had 39 students on Friday -- but it is short-lived. By Tuesday, the district expects to add an additional sixth-grade class.

Across the district, officials are in the process of "leveling" class sizes to see that no classes are too big and as few as possible are too small.

Leveling takes place every year -- sometimes in October -- but this time the district is trying to do it sooner. School started Aug. 30.

This year's leveling comes as the district implements a new education delivery model that reduces the number of small classes and increases average class size.

While enrollment numbers are fluid, officials estimate that they are in the process of potentially adding 18 classes to various schools, filling them with 13 teachers sent from other schools. Most of the remaining new positions will be filled by furloughed teachers.

Brookline also had more students than expected in kindergarten -- by the second day there were two classes of 36 students each -- and the district already brought in a substitute teacher so the school could add a third class immediately until a permanent teacher is placed.

The sub will stay for three days after the new teacher arrives to help with the transition.

On Friday, two of the Brookline kindergarten classes had 26 students each and one had 16. The one class was made smaller so that new students can be added as they enroll and so that fewer students had to change teachers.

Throughout the district, officials made a deliberate effort to combine classes when, for example, there were two sections of the same grade level in the same school, each with 14 students.

Last school year districtwide, class sizes averaged 22 students in K-5, but the district is seeking an average of 25 this school year.

The goal is for the average in grades 6-8 to grow from 22 to 28 while the average in grades 9-12 is to grow from 21 to 30.

"I would say we have more classes closer to where we want them to be, but we still have variation," said deputy superintendent Jeannine French.

In some cases, Ms. French said, there is only one section of a class, so the number may be small.

She said a policy decision was made not to combine two classes if the result was more than 30 students in one class.

That means that if a school has 16 students in one class and 17 in the other of the same grade level, such classes remain small, she said.

There also are limits on class size in the contract with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

In the contract, for example, a "reasonable" class size for academic classes in middle schools is 28.

A class can't be more than six above a reasonable size. In a school, class size can't average more than five above a reasonable size, or, districtwide, more than two above.

Under the contract, a reasonable size for a kindergarten or first grade is 25, but if the size exceeds 27, then a classroom aide is assigned on or about Oct. 1, full-time if there are multiple such classes or part-time if there is just one.

In the high schools, Ms. French said, leveling is more likely to involve schedule changes within the building than moving teachers to another building.

She said one of the goals is to place children in schools and classes they want to attend.

Before the school year began, four schools -- Pittsburgh Minadeo PreK-5 in Squirrel Hill, King PreK-8 on the North Side, Beechwood PreK-5 in Beechview and Whittier K-5 in Mount Washington -- each received an additional teacher because they were expected to exceed their enrollment projections.

The higher enrollments materialized at three of them, but the additional teacher at Minadeo will be reassigned elsewhere, said assistant superintendent David May-Stein.

Pittsburgh Greenfield PreK-8 did not initially meet enrollment projections, but enrollment picked up, likely because Greenfield met adequate yearly progress standards, making it eligible to receive some students from lower-achieving schools through school choice.

On Sept. 7, Greenfield had combined 27 students in first grade and 28 in second grade -- each grade divided into two classrooms, Mr. May-Stein said.

Central administration held off combining classes into one class at each of the two grade levels because the principal thought more students might enroll through school choice, Mr. May-Stein said.

By Friday, there were 33 first-graders, so that grade will keep its two classes, said Mr. May-Stein.

However, the second grade remained stable at 28 students, so Mr. May-Stein said it will need to be combined into one class and a Greenfield teacher will be deployed elsewhere.

"We just don't have the resources to maintain classes at 14 students," said Mr. May-Stein.

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