Dec 17, 2011 :: FREMONT, Calif. -- "Guys, I almost can't hear myself," exclaims teacher Jenna Kelly to her large class of third graders at Ardenwood Elementary School in Fremont. She felt torn between paying attention to individual students and controlling the classroom. Whenever she tried to help one student with his class work, the rest of the class clamored for her attention.
Class size is a huge issue at Ardenwood Elementary, which is located in northern Fremont and serves about 900 students, over 70 percent of whom are Asian, largely Chinese and Asian Indian. Each class this year has an average of almost 30 students.
Big budget cuts at the Fremont Unified School District level are to blame. Ardenwood itself did not suffer any dramatic funding. But the district budget dropped from $273 million in 2007-2008 down to $251 million in 2010-2011. Seven teacher positions were cut.
Because there was a no-layoff clause written into the contract for permanent teachers, layoffs targeted temporary teachers. Attrition made up for the rest. To compensate, each classroom was required to absorb more students, raising student-teacher ratios across the district. In FUSD, class size for first and third grades went up 40 percent from 20 in to 28.
"It's just more chaotic," says Kelly, who spends a lot more time keeping students quiet before she can teach. Kelly is grateful there are more parents volunteering in the classroom. But she's also seen a dramatic increase in students. She winds up spending less time with each student.
"It's just not the same," she explains. "They are louder, they are not reading as fast, and their scores aren't as high (as before)," she says.
Teacher workloads outside the classroom are also heavier because there are more papers to grade. Kelly says her class usually has two to three tests per week and it takes an average of 45 extra minutes to grade each test, not to mention the time to prepare learning materials for more students. "If you are talking about planning and preparing, that's a couple of hours more." She takes work home about three nights a week and often works on weekends.
Paula Rugg, principal of Ardenwood, recalls that it was difficult when teachers needed to absorb eight more students into their classes for the first time. But, she says, teachers slowly learned to be more creative to help students adjust to more crowded classrooms.
"Teachers learned to manage the class by having children in groups," Rugg says. "There's a lot of group work now. If you walk into a classroom, you'll see kids sitting in table groups."
Ying Lu, a Chinese mother of a fifth grader at Ardenwood, says she was concerned about classroom sizes at first, but was glad that her son was able to adapt quite well. "He makes more friends in the class, and his test score is about the same," she says.
Rugg says teachers are doing a great job to minimize the impact and school data suggest English learners' performance hasn't been impacted. English language learners account for 17 percent of the entire student body, many of whom are Chinese.
Ivy Wu, a FUSD board member, says Chinese parents, like other parents, are stressed about declining school funding levels and don't understand how school budgets are made. She thinks Chinese-English learners are doing alright because their parents -- while not necessarily wealthy -- "spend their money on education purposes."
In fact, Ardenwood parents overall have been donating to the school to reduce class size, but the deficit was too big to be covered by parental donations.
Apart from class size, the school district has also eliminated a variety of services over recent years, including cutting school bus services, eliminating teachers' positions in fine arts, music and sports, shortening the last school year to 177 from 180, as well as reducing school library hours.
"(Back in 2010), I only worked two and a half days a week," says Sandhya Sharma, Ardenwood's librarian. The result is that students come only once every other week, she says, losing the chance to learn research skills and check out books.
Voters approved a FUSD parcel tax in 2010, which school officials believe will generate about $3 million a year over the next five years. By using the property tax levy, Ardenwood was able to restore the school library hours and bring back their arts and music teachers.
"With more budget cuts looming, we are still very concerned about the future," says Wu.
Fremont Unified School District:
Class Size: 28 in Kindergarten to 3rd grades, 30 in 4th and 5th grades. In high schools, classes were staffed at 27.5 to 1, but some core academic classes (English, Math, Social Science and Science) were as high as 36 to 1.
Teacher Layoffs: None. However, 202 temporary teachers were laid off.
School Year: 180 Days, restored from 177 days in 2010-2011.
(Data provided by EdSource's survey in October, 2011)
- Read more on budget impacts on local schools through New America Media's "A Day in the Life of a Classroom" project, a journalistic collaboration between NAM and six ethnic media outlets to document the toll of budget cuts on local schools.