Amid budget cuts, teachers struggle with larger classes

Metro Atlanta students aren’t likely to get more one-on-one time with teachers or relief from crowding when they return to school next month.

Georgia may be inching toward economic recovery, but its public schools are still struggling with diminished state and local revenue. That translates into bigger classes.

Data examined by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that last year, 80 percent of the state’s 180 school districts approved plans to exceed class-size caps. Those caps, adopted before the recession, were supposed to boost the state’s lackluster student performance.

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Most metro Atlanta districts have again sought approval to exceed caps for the upcoming year, although generally by no more than they did last year. Cobb County was an exception allowing eight more students in k-12 classes, up from five the year before.

Ask teachers about the biggest impact of years of back-to-back budget cuts, and the most common complaint is the growing number of students they’re assigned.

“Find me one teacher in this building who tells you class size doesn’t matter. You won’t,” said Alyssa Montooth, who teaches English at Druid Hills High School in DeKalb County. Her classes number as many as three dozen students.

“Class size is everything.”

From 2008 to 2012, school districts across Georgia saw $4.7 billion in state aid evaporate. That doesn’t include the loss of hundreds of millions more in local money as homes and other taxable property lost value. Federal stimulus monies helped temporarily, but those days are gone.

State officials compensated for the shortfall by giving districts greater flexibility in spending the money they have. In 2009, cash-strapped districts were given permission to exceed the caps — ranging from 18 students in kindergarten to 32 in high school — by three students.

Since then, districts have been allowed to increase the class sizes in most areas by any amount so long as they adopt the change at a public meeting.

The result: over five years, the number of teachers in Georgia classrooms has tumbled by 10 percent, according to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which licenses teachers. At the same time, Georgia’s student population has grown by about 3 percent.

State Education Superintendent John Barge calls larger class sizes a problem, especially for educators working to teach a more rigorous curriculum.

“We have demanded so much from our teachers,” he said. “We cannot maintain this.”

One caveat: Barge’s office tracks the number of waivers granted, but it lacks reliable data on how large classes have actually grown. State officials say those figures aren’t provided by districts in a standardized way, a problem the state hopes to fix..

The AJC instead examined class size “allotments” — the average number of students budgeted for each teacher — for six metro Atlanta districts. Over the past five years, the smallest increase was for elementary grades in Fulton County, which grew by 3 students. The largest jump was for middle school grades in Cobb County, which increased by 9.5 students.

For decades, researchers have studied the connection between class size and student outcomes.

C. Kenneth Tanner, an education professor at the University of Georgia, said student performance clearly diminishes in some circumstances. He theorizes that cramped quarters lead to a loss of discipline and disruptions.

“If they’re fighting, they can’t learn,” he said. “They pester each other when they’re too close together.”

Steven Rivkin, an economics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, co-authored a study on the effect of class sizes last month. “The compelling research finds that smaller class sizes improve outcomes for children at least in the elementary grades,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.” He said there is also evidence that both high achievers and impoverished children are harmed most, perhaps because of the deterioration of the classroom order that Tanner described.

In Georgia, six of 10 students qualify for free or reduced lunch, considered a key barometer for poverty in schools.

In some classrooms, the results are plain to see.

One morning in late spring, Dunwoody High School civics teacher Bryan Boucher divided 33 freshmen into three groups to discuss U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The room was abuzz, particularly in the center, where one bunch of teenagers had enough space to move their desks into a circle.

But against one wall, where 11 students had to leave their desks in a long row for lack of space, only the five in the middle took part in the discussion.

Boucher said one of his advanced placement classes had 36 students. “That’s a lot for an AP class,” he said.

In Gwinnett County, high school history teacher Jay Nebel said he had as many as 32 students in a class, the most in 17 years. He said that makes it harder to manage group discussions. He worries about his ability to establish personal relationships with students.

“We’re at the ceiling of what’s manageable,” Nebel said.

Montooth, the DeKalb County high school teacher, has had as many as three dozen students in a class. She said the crush makes it easier for shy kids to “hide” and forces her to be vigilant against a takeover by a “mob mentality.”

And there’s a personal toll: It can take a half hour to grade just one student’s writing assignment, so she spent every weekend last spring grading papers instead of playing with her 5-year-old daughter.

“The class sizes are absurdly large,” Montooth said. “So (most teachers) don’t assign writing. Or if they do, they put a check mark on it, and the students don’t learn from that.”

Larger classes also worry parents, who fear their kids will be lost in the shuffle.

Misty Barry, of Cherokee County, was unhappy about the 26 children in her son Jordan’s third grade classroom last spring. The teacher handled it “wonderfully” and her son thrived, but Barry worried about the consequences for the whole class when some kids needed extra help. “If you have a teacher that’s focusing more on one or two children,” she said, “what’s happening to the other kids?”

Jordan’s teacher, Sandy Giudice, said the class — the largest she’s had — left her with less “one-on-one time” for each child. Extra students mean more paperwork, too. Three additional students produce 30 more papers to grade each week, she said.

Despite recent economic growth, school districts, which depend largely on property taxes, will be slow to experience relief.

In Cobb County, board members last month agonized before voting to approve a waiver that would allow eight additional students in k-12 classes. That means a middle school class could have as many as 36 students, for example, and a kindergarten class 26.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said administrators needed the additional flexibility. Cobb’s enrollment has soared, and school officials recently learned they should expect a $5 million dip in funding because the tax digest has declined.

Board member David Banks said he’s deeply troubled by the larger classes. “We are dangerously close to warehousing students rather than educating them,” he said. “In fact, we may already be there.”

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