What's an extra two or three students in a classroom? Too many, according to local teachers, who are in the midst of stalled contract negotiations.
Because of budget cuts, come Tuesday, some high school courses in Lodi Unified School District could have more than 50 students enrolled. Kindergarten could have as many as 33 in a classroom — or more
"I heard from one of my kindergarten teachers at Lawrence that there are 36 on her roster, but to expect as many as 44," union president Jeff Johnston said. "(Lodi Unified) says they are monitoring it and they're going to make adjustments, but we're obviously not staffed at the levels we were last year."
To save money, the school board laid off more than 240 teachers and offered an early retirement incentive to an additional 100.
Assistant Superintendent Catherine Pennington, who oversees the district's primary education, said the main issue with bulging class sizes is the fact that the district had to cut $31 million from this year's budget. The largest portion of the district's financial plan is personnel.
She said the estimated class sizes are only averages and hopes the district will be able to reduce them in the near future.
"We spend the first few weeks of school getting the classes to the correct size," Pennington said of moving personnel and possibly students around. "We will use the same procedure we use every year."
As teachers statewide are being asked to boost test scores, they're also having to deal with more students and less help from instructional aides, who have either been laid off or not replaced as a result of budget cuts, according to the California Teachers Association.
Some have questioned if the larger class sizes are even safe.
But Art Hand, who oversees buildings and maintenance for the district, said the average classroom is 960 square-feet, and up to 50 students per classroom are permitted under fire code regulations.
A Bear Creek High School social studies teacher said one administrator suggested moving out all furniture such as file cabinets and computers into unused classrooms to make room for students.
Last year, the school's courses were capped at 50 with the loss of a few teachers. She is concerned what class sizes will look like this year, since eight of the 13 teachers received pink slips.
Parents, too, are concerned.
Some, like Ronda Reynolds, who has two daughters enrolled in Lodi Unified schools, are worried that increased class sizes are going to affect the way her children learn. She thinks the class sizes are ridiculous for both students and teachers, and knows people who are moving out of the district to get a better education, she said.
"The fact that teachers are able to discipline the students less and less, causing more disruption in class, there is less instructional time," Reynolds added of the additional students teachers must contend with. "How can kids learn in that environment?"
Amanda Hendrickson's youngest child will begin kindergarten at Lakewood Elementary School on Tuesday. She's been informed that her child will likely be in a class of 32 or 33. Her preschool class had only 12 students.
"It's a real concern for me for a child learning the basics ... how to sound out a word. I'm concerned my kindergartner might not be able to get that," she said.
Kindergarten teachers have a unique situation, having to balance the education of children not yet 5 and who may have never attended school with those closer to age 6 and hungry to learn, according to teachers.
'Issue of management'
Teachers in all grades said it will be harder to give special attention to students who may need help reaching the state-mandated standards, according to Johnston.
"The more kids you put into a classroom, it becomes an issue of management," said Johnston. "(Due to) the fact that Lodi Unified is a program improvement district, there will be less individual time given to those students who are struggling."
Will there be enough space?
"You need approximately 14 inches to run a vacuum between desks. That's not going to happen," classified union president Pete Geraldizo said.
At the June 15 school board meeting, trustees were asked to approve a state waiver that would uncap state mandates on class sizes. But at the urging of constituents and Johnston, who said it was premature until a union contract was settled, the board opted to table the state request unless it is needed.
The parties have still not come to an agreement.
The waiver would have allowed violation of a 1964 law which dictates a formula that prohibits more than 30 students in primary classrooms.
At the time, trustee Jeff Thompson said he was "bewildered" why the district wanted to submit such a waiver when it has moved numbers around for years. Although there was no vote taken, he would have dissented due to the state's inability to provide school districts with the resources to keep class sizes at a minimum, he said at the meeting.
Thompson also feels it could be a moot point once the teachers' union contract is adopted.
"It is a fluid situation," he said. "But make no bones about it: This board cares about class sizes."
Chief Business Official Doug Barge said that the financial penalties for exceeding the state requirements are "staggering" if the district does not possess a waiver. If there are 21 or more students in fourththrough eighth-grade classrooms, for example, the district loses about $5,100 per pupil above that threshold.
Some schools have seen large class sizes in recent years even without a waiver, said math teacher Martha Snider.
In her 21 years working for the district, she said her class periods have always averaged between 33 and 36 students.
"Lodi Education Association members like myself have been concerned about class sizes in our district for years," she said.
At Bear Creek High School in North Stockton, up to 50 students are expected in each of the core classes this school year, according to one teacher.
"I'm really concerned about having 50 in my class," Claudia Mennuti said at a recent school board meeting. "I will still be a good teacher, but there will be things I won't be able to do anymore. There are only so many hours. ... This is really a concern weighing on the Bear Creek teachers."
She is not alone.
"In my case, last year's ending class rosters totaled 32, 34, 28, 33, 34 and 27. Next Tuesday, I start the year with 38, 40, 28, 32, 38 and 38," she said.
Her largest classes will be pre-advanced placement courses.
"While one might think that larger numbers in these class periods might be OK due to the caliber of students enrolled, these students deserve and need a challenging curriculum just as much as any other student," Mennuti said.
She added that preparing lessons for six periods of instruction takes more than one 55-minute preparation period each day.
"Preparing for more students simply takes even longer," she said.
Snider says teacher placement is a simple case of mathematics; the number of teachers assigned to a school site are based on the total number of students. For example, if there are two resource teachers and two special day class teachers who serve a group of 20 to 30 students each, then four teachers serve 80 to 120 students in a 900 to 1,000 middle school student body.
"If there are 38 teachers and you take away four, that leaves 34 teachers to serve 820 (to) 880," she said in an e-mail.
Typically, English-language development classes have fewer students, and the number in special education classes are dictated by state regulations.
There are other scheduling considerations, including AVID, pre-advanced placement, math intervention, algebra and Reach academic classes, which all have enrollment restrictions and are only offered during certain periods of the day, according to Snider.
On Thursday, administrators were still calling teachers back and moving them from one site to another, according to Johnston.
"I think the district is struggling right now to see how they're going to meet the needs of students," he said.
Pennington said she has a lot of confidence in the district's teaching staff, and many have received training to deal with larger class sizes.
"We will make work what we have in place now," she said.
Although both Barge and Nichols-Washer wanted to submit the waiver application to the state as soon as possible, since it could take months to be approved at the state level, officials in Sacramento don't actually count the number of students per classroom until January. By then, laid-off teachers could be called back and the union contract settled. And, historically, enrollment figures will have dropped.
In the meantime, at least one teacher said beginning-of-the-year class sizes could be even higher than predicted.
"Because school does not start until Tuesday, we don't know whether there will be 46 in some kindergarten classes," union vice president Sue Kenmotsu said. "But keep in mind, what comes through the door on the first day of school could be completely different. It could be even more different the next week."
Still, Snider is looking forward to the new school year and solving the district's large class size woes.
"To orchestrate solutions, all community stakeholders will need to work together for the students' well-being," she said.
Class sizes at a glance
- 33 for kindergarten.
- 32 for grades 1 to 3.
- 35 for grades 4 to 6.
- 34-plus for grades 7 and 8.
- 40-plus for grades 9 to 12.
— Source: Lodi Unified School District.