In Partnership with The 74

For Cortines and UTLA, class size reduction is LAUSD priority

Vanessa Romo | November 12, 2014



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Protesters outside LAUSD headquarters on May 13, 2013. (Credit: UTLA)

* UPDATED

As contract negotiations plod along between LA Unified and the teachers union, UTLA, the issue of class size reduction has taken on a new urgency for Superintendent Ramon Cortines, who plans to shrink the number of students in middle school and high school classrooms by the end of the year.

“I’m not going to tolerate this second semester,” Cortines told LA School Report, before launching into an anecdote about not being able to get through the door of two separate classrooms at Jefferson High School “because they were so crowded.”

“That’s just unacceptable,” he said in frustration.

Teachers have been calling on district leadership to reduce class sizes for years, even as billions of dollars were slashed from the budget and the number of desks per classroom sometimes doubled. It’s been one of UTLA’s core objectives in striking a new deal with the district, a pivotal component of the “Schools LA Students Deserve” platform that President Alex Caputo-Pearl ran on in the recent election.

Data gathered by the district last month shows there are currently more than 1,500 middle school and high school classes enrolling 40 or more students throughout the district. More than 300 enroll 50 or more students. Those figures exclude homeroom, physical education, choir, band and any unfilled sections, all of which tend to be larger in class size.

While 40 sounds like a large number of students for one class, it’s actually within the prescribed ratio of LA Unified classes for non-academic periods in grades 6-through-12 and for academic periods in grades 11 and 12. For academic periods in other grades, the ratios are smaller: 24 to 1 for K-through-3; 30.5 to 1 for grades 4, 5 and some 6; and 34 to 1 for the remaining grade 6-through-10.

Although the data reflecting current ratios comes directly from the district, Lydia Ramos, communications director, explains that “these are very raw numbers” and may contain errors caused by the new student data management system, MiSiS, as well as by unfinished “balancing,” the process of determining how many students are assigned to each teacher.

Still, even ruling out classes that are obviously MiSiS created mistakes — San Pedro Senior High, for instance, appears to enroll 566 students in something called “College Class” — the most notable findings in an analysis of the data by LA School Report include:

  • About 1,100 high school classes enroll 40 or more students, in line with prescribed ratios; more than 300 enroll 50 or more students per class.
  • More than 120 middle school classes enroll more than 35 students, the current target maximum for students in grades 6 to 8.
  • 14 classes show 90 or more students enrolled, most of them in “Advance Conditioning,” which are phys ed or athletics related.
  • Approximately 60 algebra classes — including algebra 1A through algebra 2 — enroll more than 40 students, 30 algebra classes have 46 to 49 students, and six have between 51 and 65. Foshay Learning Center has one class of 71 students.
  • About 87 Advanced Placement courses enroll 40 or more students. Grover Cleveland Charter High School has the biggest class: AP US History with 67 students

UTLA President Caputo-Pearl has called the numbers “shocking,” and told LA School Report, “This is an issue of improving student learning conditions and educator working conditions.”

And although he adds, “We welcome any efforts on the part of Ray Cortines to move his negotiating team to a place that works for educators and students,” Caputo-Pearl says he’s worried about class sizes ballooning even more.

“LAUSD is threatening to raise K-3 class size to as high as 33, and attempting to maintain a “fiscal emergency” clause which allows class sizes to be raised at the whim of the District.” The class limit of K-3 has held steady at 24 since 2009.

UTLA is seeking to set maximum caps on classes based on grade level. Its current contract proposal limits grades between Transitional Kindergarten through 3rd, to 26 students, 4th through 8th grades to 30, and high school to 34 students per class. Physical Education can be expanded up to 50 students.

Making these changes would come at a tremendous cost to the district, which Cortines says is already heading toward a $300 million deficit by 2015-16. Still, he acknowledges that classrooms bursting at the seams are bad for everyone — students, teachers, administrators, and the district — but he did not shy away from putting at least some of the blame for the unwieldy classes on local school leadership.

“The district is not all to blame,” he said explaining that schools are funded based on the total number of students attending. “And local control makes the decisions on how to spend the money. So, it’s they who decide to have so many teachers in the classroom and so many people out of the classroom.”

“I expect local principals, the local superintendent, and the directors to work with schools to see that this doesn’t happen,” he said.

But despite the mandate to cut class sizes by the start of the second semester, which is a little more than a month away, Cortines admits only a portion of the problem can be resolved with the money available.

“I know there will be some large classes, but do I think there will be thousands like there are now? No,” he answered himself.

School board member Bennett Kayser has a different solution: Rather than pursue across-the-board class size cuts, take a targeted class approach.

“As long as California remains 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding, our classrooms will be larger than we like,” he told LA School Report. “My goal is to push for targeted class-size reduction in the areas students find most challenging such as algebra, a key requirement to graduating within our new A-G curriculum.”

He argues this is a far more realistic approach that will garner effective results, because it will ensure that students receive adequate attention in subject areas that are used as building blocks for future, more advanced areas. For instance, reducing a culinary arts class is not as imperative as reducing 4th grade math, where kids learn about fractions.

Kayser also warns that the problem is about to get worse. Federal grant dollars and state money owed to the district through a lawsuit several years ago and were used as a work-around to hire more teachers are all expiring.

In a memo to Cortines, Vivian Ekchian, the district’s chief labor negotiator, detailed the loss of funding.

“During the period of time that the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) funds were available, schools used those funds to purchase addition [sic] teacher positions to lower class size (CSR positions — and have adjusted their course offerings to provide a greater variety of options to students, intervention classes, enrichment opportunities, etc. QEIA funding has now ended for the majority of schools and many now struggle to find way to maintain their programs.”

UTLA and Ekchian and her staff will meet again on Friday for the next bargaining session. Neither side has said whether class size will be discussed.


*Clarifies reasons for larger class size to include “unfinished balancing” in assignment of teachers and adds prescribed teacher/student ratios.

 

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