Why CUSD’s classes are so large, and the impact it has on students
This is the first of a two-part series.
CARLSBAD — “I feel like only some (teachers) know my name because I’m quiet, and in a large class, the teacher doesn’t have time for the quiet kid,” said Oscar Mundo, a Carlsbad High School senior.
Some students report that teachers are missing the most basic thing about them: their names. And it’s not just the quiet kids who are getting lost in CUSD’s (Carlsbad Unified School District) large classes.
Isabelle Lee, a junior at Carlsbad High School and an active member of the school’s speech and debate team, voiced a similar experience to Mundo’s.
“Three of my six teachers know my name, and the rest of them kind of just grade my papers,” she said.
With so many other classmates, students say it’s hard to get individual attention from teachers. They often rely on other classmates when they need help. In classrooms crammed with desks, it can be hard for students seated along the rooms’ edges to see the board.
From students to parents, teachers to district administrators to school board trustees — everyone knows that classes in CUSD schools are large.
Dozens of students per class
Several classes in the district’s 16 schools have exceeded 30 students in elementary schools and 40 students in high schools.
A fourth grade class at Magnolia Elementary has 38 students. Calavera Hills Elementary has two fifth grade classes with 37 students each.
There are no class size maximum regulations for high school grades at a state or local level. At the district’s two main high schools, over 100 classes have 40 students or more.
Last fall, a Spanish 1 class at Sage Creek High School had 45 students. At Carlsbad High School last semester, there were 46 students in one AP calculus A/B class and 44 students in a chemistry 1 honors class.
Physical education classes at both high schools typically have over 50 students, and some class periods have over 60.
When Carlsbad High School Principal Matthew Steitz was asked if he thinks physical education classes are too large, he said without hesitation, “Absolutely.”
District administrators have emphasized that CUSD’s class sizes follow state requirements.
“There’s no single metric that people would agree on for a class that is too large,” said CUSD Superintendent Suzette Lovely.
Yet even without an official metric, administrators and trustees know big class sizes when they see them.
“No one would deny that class sizes are too large,” said Assistant Superintendent Suzanne O’Connell at an April 18, 2013 Board meeting when the subject was being discussed.
Cost of class sizes
Facing millions of dollars in deficits since the 2008-09 school year, the district has cut costs throughout its annual budgets, resulting in the ballooning of class sizes in every grade each year.
District officials agree that the cost of lowering class sizes is almost exclusively attributed to the hiring and paying of more full-time teachers.
No matter how many classes there are, the district still supplies every student with a desk, books, technology, lab equipment, and other materials. With ample spare classrooms, facility space is also not an issue.
Adding another class unit means hiring another full-time teacher, which costs the district tens of thousands of dollars per year for salary and benefits.
The average annual salary of a full-time teacher for grades kindergarten through third grade at CUSD is about $81,000.
Declining district budget, rising teacher layoffs
State law only allows school districts to pay teacher salaries with its unrestricted general fund dollars, a financial resource that was cut drastically when California’s fiscal crisis was realized in 2008.
In January 2008, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a “fiscal emergency” for the state. The Department of Finance projected a $14.5 billion deficit for the state’s 2008-09 budget, and funding for education was slashed.
As a result of the cuts to state funding, the district faced a multi-million dollar shortage. The Board of Trustees had to lay off more than 100 teachers to help close the financial gap, ultimately leading to the increase of students in the classrooms.
Before then, the district was enjoying a 20-students-to-one-teacher ratio for first through third grades under a state incentive program.
Four years later, the district was again facing a multi-million dollar deficit and the Board laid off dozens more teachers for the 2012-13 school year.
Despite pleas from parents and the teachers union, the district was unable to use Prop P money to fund lower class sizes. Instead, due to the conditions of the voter-approved proposition, the money went to the construction of Sage Creek High School.
Class sizes in the district were again increased.
State mandates on class sizes, for some grades
While finances and the number of paid full-time teachers are the major determinants of class sizes, California’s Education Code also has some say.
Sections of the state’s education code require that kindergarten classes have no more than 33 students, while classes in first through third grades have no more than 32 students.
For fourth through eighth grades, the district’s class size average cannot exceed more than 29.9 students.
Districts with class sizes that exceed these mandates are typically fined hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties. But districts can apply for a waiver that allows for the classrooms to operate at numbers that exceed the state’s maximums.
Since it began facing fiscal shortcomings, CUSD has applied for these waivers.
The district’s most recent waivers for this and the 2014-15 school years, have allowed them to keep class sizes in grades kindergarten through eighth larger than the state maximums, and escape about $650,000 in penalties.
CUSD is not alone in facing financial struggles. Applications from districts across the state for waivers from class size penalties skyrocketed after the 2009-10 school year.
That year, eight California districts applied for class size waivers for grades kindergarten through third. For the 2012-13 school year, 101 districts applied for class size waivers for the same grades.
The number of districts applying for waivers for class sizes for grades fourth through eighth similarly multiplied over the same years.
But California’s Education Code does not set class size maximums for high school grades.
According to district administrators, the only thing that dictates how many students can be put in one class are fire codes.
And fire codes allow for some flexibility, according to Carlsbad Fire Chief Mike Davis.
Every school in the city is inspected by a fire marshal once each year.
Davis explained that the occupancy levels for specific rooms rely on a number of complex factors, including the room’s square footage, the number of exits, the types of seating, and the type of building.
“It’s not really cut and dry,” Davis said about the fire codes for schools.
Each year a fire inspector meets with district administrators to discuss recommendations for the school sites, but CUSD’s needs and constraints are also taken into consideration.
“It’s not always a question of code,” Davis said. “It’s a question of like every other civil service (organization)…everybody is trying to do the best they can with their finances.”
He said that CUSD has promptly followed all recommendations made by a fire inspector. He couldn’t recall CUSD ever being cited for noncompliance for occupancy levels.
Impacts for students
Class sizes have remained large through this school year. Class sizes range from 30-plus students in elementary school classes and 40-plus in high school classes.
Current students have said that their classes are packed to the point that learning and the classroom environment are negatively impacted.
Carlsbad High School senior Ashley Lauber said that it’s easier for kids to get away with disruptive behavior in a larger class.
“With a bigger class, you get away with more. A teacher can’t notice everything,” she said.
She specifically recalls being picked on in Geometry her freshman year by other students. She said her teacher didn’t notice and the verbal teasing continued through the entire semester.
Jose Garcia, another Carlsbad High School senior, said that in his U.S. Government class there were more students than available desks. He said that the students who got to class last sat in chairs along the edge of the room rather than at desks.
“If you come in late, you got what was left,” he said.
Daniel Levin said that there is little opportunity for him to get his questions answered outside of class.
“If you want one-on-one time, it’s hard to get,” the Carlsbad High School senior said. “When I come in at lunch (to talk to the teacher), there’s already four other kids.”
Students also said that classes could become noisy with more kids.
On a Tuesday morning in early March, John Alexander’s second period physics class was going over how to calculate torque.
All but one of the class’s 41 students was seated in desks arranged in six tight rows. One student was situated in his electric wheelchair on the doormat just inside the doorway, the only place in the room where his large wheelchair could fit.
Alexander was demonstrating the calculations on the board while the students followed along and discussed the problem with each other. Chatter quickly filled the room.
“Hey, can you be quiet?” Alexander called above the din.
Effects on teachers and future class size reduction
Students are not the only ones impacted by large class sizes. Teachers tell of not being able to give enough attention to each of their students and extended work hours.
Yet more money in the state’s coffers and a different funding formula may be paving the way for lower class sizes in the years to come at CUSD schools.
But to some degree, the extent of class size reductions in which grade levels and the timeline is up to the district and Board to decide.
Next Week — Crammed Classrooms: Class sizes’ impact on teachers and how reduced class sizes may be in CUSD’s future