“But parents weren't a part of the discussion.”
By George B. Sanchez, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
|8-year-old Nathan Geddie, a third grader, was placed in a second grade class at Calvert Street Elementary school in order to reduce classroom sizes. (David Crane/Staff Photographer)
October 27, 2008 -- A month into the new school year, 8-year-old Nathan Geddie and five of his classmates were removed from their third-grade classroom at Calvert Street Elementary School in Woodland Hills.
The students were told they were well-behaved and smart - and would be placed in a class with second-graders.
A letter to parents explained that the combination second- and third-grade class was for gifted students. However, parents later learned the class was created to ensure state funding that provides more than $1,000 per student in classes of 20 or fewer.
"Combination classes can be good, but in this case, it was a fiscal issue, not a philosophical one," said Judy Elliot, chief academic officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
A successful combo class requires a teacher who is familiar with each student's strengths, she said, and has the support of parents and students.
For Nathan, getting taken away from his friends and lining up with second-graders didn't feel like a promotion.
"I really didn't want to leave my third-grade class," he said.
About 13,220 elementary students are currently enrolled in 842 combination classes across the LAUSD.
Local District 1, which covers the west San Fernando Valley and includes Calvert Street Elementary, has 121 combination classes, the highest number for a single district in the LAUSD.
"This is very common, especially in the west San Fernando Valley, where the schools are small," said Roseanna Neustaedter, principal at Calvert.
It would be unusual for a school not to have a combo class, said Jean Brown, superintendent for Local District 1.
Distinct from magnet or gifted programs, combination classes in elementary school are typically created to maintain a 20-to-1 teaching ratio for kindergarten, first, second and third grades.
At $1,071 per student, LAUSD received $199.6 million last year to maintain small classes, said Rebecca Lee, of the California Department of Education fiscal services division.
If schools go above the 20-to-1 average for the year, the state will request a refund, Lee said.
Margo Pensavalle, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, said while combo classes are common across the country, the key to their success is differentiation, which means teachers recognize and accommodate the needs of individual students.
Pensavalle said her own children were placed in combination classes in elementary school.
"I like the possibilities in a combination class, but it has to be a teacher committed to knowing the kids and meeting their needs," Pensavalle said. "It's always my concern kids don't get the right curriculum."
Neustaedter said Nathan and his classmates were selected based on their ability to work independently and collaboratively.
But parents weren't a part of the discussion.
Nathan's parents, Paul and Katrina, found out about the combo class through a letter from Neustaedter.
"It was handed to us by our son at the end of the day after he spent the whole day in the second-grade classroom," Katrina Geddie said.
Like the Geddies, Patrina Stewart learned through a letter that her son, William, would be in a combo class.
Last year, William spent at least two hours a day on a bus to attend a magnet school in Brentwood.
The education was good, but Stewart chose against another year of commuting and decided to send William to Calvert.
But the combo class caused her to question her decision.
"I made the biggest mistake of my life taking my baby out of a gifted school, and he gets this," she said.
The Stewarts and Geddies were afraid their sons would not receive third-grade level work.
Eight-year-old William said he and his family should have been asked before he was moved.
"They should have said, `Do you want your student to be in the second-grade class?"' he said.
While teachers and Neustaedter insisted the third-graders would get the appropriate education despite sitting in a second-grade classroom, parents of the six children were outraged. They contacted school board members and district officials and even considered filing a discrimination complaint.
Last week, school officials reversed their decision and returned the six children to a third-grade class.
"I am pleased they listened to me and the other parents, and Calvert Street reversed their decision," Patrina Stewart said.
Madelyne Coopersmith, the elementary school director for Local District 1, said the move could cost the school small-class-size funds.
But money shouldn't be play into education decisions, Paul Geddie said.
"This is unjust. We shouldn't sacrifice some children for money, and I don't think that was the intent of the law either," he said.
Parental pressure was part of the school's reversal.
"I wish every parent would advocate as strong as the Calvert parents," Elliot said.