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John Alexander’s second period physics class at Carlsbad High School is packed with 41 students and all of their backpacks. One of the students is situated on the doormat just inside the doorway because his electric wheelchair cannot fit between the rows of desks. Photo by Rachel Stine
Lead Story

Crammed Classrooms: Part 2

Class sizes’ impact on teachers and how reduced class sizes may be in CUSD’s future

This is the second of a two-part series.


CARLSBAD — “Everyone will do their best no matter how many students they have, but (teachers) know we can do better when we have fewer than we have now,” explained Carlsbad High School English and film teacher Jeff Brandmeyer.

Today, most elementary school classes in Carlsbad Unified School District have more than 30 students. Many high school classes have more than 40 students and some have more than 60.

Everyone from the district level to the classroom level agrees that the district’s class sizes are large.

CUSD teachers said that having larger classes makes it more difficult for them to give each of their students individual attention, multiplies their workload, and can even impact how they teach.

Jeffrey Spanier has been teaching English and AVID at Carlsbad High School for about 15 years. He said that when he first started, he had about 30 students in his eleventh and twelfth grade English classes, and fewer students than that in his ninth and tenth grade classes.

Today, all of his English classes have around 38 students.

“With 40 kids, you really can’t talk to every kid every day. You can’t push their thinking,” he said.

Spanier added that it’s more difficult to host class discussions. He said that quiet students can hide unnoticed in the back while more vocal students cover all of the talking points.

Putting students into groups for smaller discussions doesn’t work either since there is no space in his classroom to rearrange the desks.

“You literally don’t have the room in the classroom to put groups of four or five (desks),” he said.

Donna Stockalper teaches algebra and pre-calculus classes in one of the newest classrooms at Carlsbad High School. She still finds her room overcrowded with up to 44 students in a single class.

“It’s packed. It doesn’t matter if it’s in this room or another,” she said.

The extra students also add to her work outside of class.

When asked if it takes her longer to grade the additional assignments and get them back to students, she said, “No, I just stay up until midnight.”

Brandmeyer said that with more students in his classes in recent years, the writing assignments waiting for him to grade have become “a massive pile that just needs to be gotten through.”

With so much student work to review, he said that he is unable to give as much feedback as he wants to and in some cases he assigns less work to his students to handle the extra grading.

Looking back over his 17-year teaching career at CUSD and years ago when his classes had fewer students, Brandmeyer said, “Wow, I used to give so much more than I can now to each individual student.”

But in spite of his concerns, he has not turned students away to keep his classes small.

Students signed up for his film classes in droves this year. Rather than refusing some students, Brandmeyer has taken on one film class of 65 students and another of 59 students this semester. He has been given a double classroom to accommodate for all of his students.

“If a kid has an interest in something, I don’t want to turn them away,” he said.

“I still feel proud of what I do, and still feel like we are providing some good help to our students.”

Lisa De Gour, who teaches at Kelly Elementary School, said she is able to devote more attention to each child and their progress with fewer students. Above, she leads her afternoon students in a graphing and color lesson. Photo by Rachel Stine
Lisa De Gour, who teaches at Kelly Elementary School, said she is able to devote more attention to each child and their progress with fewer students. Above, she leads her afternoon kindergarten students in a graphing and color lesson. Photo by Rachel Stine

Paying for smaller classes with a better budget

“There’s a universal agreement among the board, administration, staff, parents, teachers, that the class sizes are larger than any of us would like them to be,” said district Superintendent Dr. Suzette Lovely.

For years, students, teachers and parents have implored the Board of Trustees and district administrators to reduce class sizes.

But according to district officials, lowering class sizes is not a simple feat.

“We can’t just do it by snapping our fingers,” explained Lovely. “We have to do it within the context of our expenditures.”

The primary cost of lowering class sizes is paying for more full-time teachers, according to CUSD officials.

CUSD’s budget, which is mostly sustained by funds from the state and local property taxes, was decreased during the years of California’s fiscal crisis. As a result of the budget cuts and the multi-million deficits, the CUSD has laid off over 150 teachers since 2008.

“The amount of state funding that you get determines how large or how small your class sizes are,” said Lovely.

But now finances at the state level are improving.

For the first time since the 2008-09 budget, California was not facing a multi-billion dollar deficit when setting its 2013-14 state budget.

In November 2012, voters approved a temporary increase in the sales tax and the personal income tax with Proposition 30. Most of the Proposition 30 revenue is allocated to kindergarten through twelfth grade education.

The state’s economic recovery and the passage of Proposition 30 have translated into more money for school districts, including CUSD.

Administrators’ current budget projects estimate that CUSD will have about a $3 million deficit for the 2014-15 school year and will lower to an approximate $2 million deficit for 2015-16.

New funding formula

The state also implemented a new school funding program, LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula), at the start of the 2013-14 school year. Among other changes, the new funding program ties funds to lowering class sizes.

LCFF requires all school districts to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to an average of 24 students per class by the 2020-21 school year.

In anticipation of this shift, CUSD hired nine more full-time teachers and created additional classes in kindergarten through third grade mid-year at the start of the spring 2014 semester.

The district mainly utilized Prop 30 funds to pay for the extra teachers.

At Kelly Elementary School, an added kindergarten teacher enabled the school to divide its one kindergarten class, one kindergarten/first grade combination class, and one first grade class into two kindergarten classes and two first grade classes. This created lower class sizes in both grades, in which 100 students are enrolled.

Dana McCann’s daughter was originally in a 34-student first grade class that now has 23 students.

McCann, who volunteers in her daughter’s class, said that before the class was divided, there were too many students for the teacher to give enough attention to each of them.

“Before, it was just managing a number of bodies,” she said.

She said that with the new class size, “(My daughter is) happy to go to school again. She was getting frustrated at the end of last year.”

Lisa De Gour, Kelly Elementary School’s new kindergarten teacher, said that her small class allows her to better track the progress of each of her students.

“I like to read with every child every day… It gives me the opportunity to individualize instruction,” she said.

Another Kelly Elementary School parent, Shelly Lynch, said she is grateful for the lower class sizes in her youngest daughter’s kindergarten class. But she is still concerned about her older daughter’s second grade class of 33 students.

“If you look at the classrooms, they’re tight. They’re sitting on top of each other,” Lynch said.

She added that students keep their backpacks and lunches outside so as to make more room inside the classroom.

Students at Kelly Elementary School leave their backpacks on hooks outside to make more room in their classrooms. Photo by Rachel Stine
Students at Kelly Elementary School leave their backpacks on hooks outside to make more room in their classrooms. Photo by Rachel Stine

Board priority

CUSD’s Board of Trustees has unofficially set lowering class sizes as a priority initiative for the 2014-15 school year.

“There is quite a bit of research that shows that reducing class sizes in (kindergarten through third grade) has a tremendous impact on learning and student achievement,” Board president Ann Tanner said.

Having to raise class sizes because of the district’s budget was worrisome for the Board, she added.

Reducing the number of students in each class is not explicitly listed on the Board’s current priority goals. But trustees have openly stated and made decisions in favor of reserving financial resources for lowering class sizes as soon as possible.

In November last year, the Board decided not to expand a popular academic program at Jefferson Elementary School, the IB (International Baccalaureate) program, to other schools in the 2014-15 school year to instead reserve funds for reducing class sizes.

“The door won’t be closed (on expanding IB), but we need to get this class size thing down,” said Tanner at the Nov. 13, 2013 meeting. “We are in the middle of trying to reduce class sizes at the moment and it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

While preparing its 2014-15 budget, the CUSD has set aside reserve funds intended for lowering class sizes in grades kindergarten through twelfth grade, according to deputy superintendent Suzanne O’Connell. But the final decisions about how many teachers will be hired for which grades have yet to be made.

Some argue that the true measure of the district and Board’s intentions to lower class sizes will be the class sizes they lower in grade levels not mandated by LCFF.

Addressing the Board at their March 19 meeting on behalf of the teacher’s union, Spanier said, “I appreciate that mandated class size reduction in lower grades has been acted upon so quickly.

“I would ask that you voluntarily move to lower class sizes significantly in grades nine through 12 as well. Our financial situation has improved, so the drastic measures you took two years ago need to be repealed.”

Teachers still make a difference

But regardless of the class sizes this year, or next, or the next, some CUSD teachers and school administrators strive to foster positive learning environments in their classrooms no matter how many students are in there.

Kelly Elementary School’s fourth and fifth grade teachers are referred to as the “Extreme Team.”

The five teachers partner together and teach their 139 students in groups.

The students are divided into groups by their grade level and aptitude for lessons in English, math, science, and social studies.

The teachers created smaller student groups for English and math, so the students receive more individual attention in those areas.

“Especially with Common Core, (students) need more time to articulate their mathematical understanding,” said Deborah Stone, who teaches fifth grade.

Plus, with the groups, Tracy Marks is not left to teach the entire curriculums of both fourth and fifth grades in her fourth and fifth grade combination class.

Marks said that without the student groups, it is easy mix up the curriculum materials and teach the wrong lesson to the wrong group of students.

“It keeps me from having to juggle,” she said about the Extreme Team’s partnership.

“Our Kelly school philosophy is that no kid is invisible,” said Kelly Elementary Principal Tressie Armstrong. She said that strategies like the Extreme Team’s student groups in the fourth and fifth grade classes ensure that a teacher notices every child every day.

Though some students mentioned that multiple teachers do not know their names, they also pointed out that several teachers put in extra effort to get to know every one of their students personally and academically.

Some teachers make sure they learn their students’ names by using nametags for the first week or two of a semester. Others make time to ask students about their personal lives.

At Carlsbad High School, several students recognized Brandmeyer for his efforts to get to know his students.

Brandmeyer opens every class period with what he calls, “NIE,” which stands for “New, Interesting, and Exciting.” The class spends seven minutes sharing what’s going on in their lives, both school-related and not.

“One might make the argument that that’s seven minutes that could have been spent on Common Core curriculum,” said Brandmeyer. “But (with it), we begin to feel like a family.”

But when class sizes rise to a certain point, that extra effort can only go so far.

“Really good teachers could teach 100 kids, and (the kids) would learn. A teacher cannot get to know 100 kids,” Armstrong said.