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For African-American Students, Class Size Matters

New America Media, News feature, Gail Berkley Posted: Nov 20, 2009

As school districts across the state struggle to meet the challenges of providing a quality education with fewer resources during the economic downturn, state subsidized small class sizes--with 20 students to 1 teacher in grades K-3--are in jeopardy.

According to a survey of the states 30 largest school districts released this week many schools are pushing class sizes to 24 in some or all of the early grades. Some classes were increasing to as many as 30 students, the survey conducted by California Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization in Berkeley, found.

The increases in the 20-1 ratio in K-3 classes do not bode well for African-American students.

Recent studies have found that small classes in kindergarten through third grade can have a lasting impact on the educational achievement of African-American students. A study completed in 2001 by Princeton University economics professors Alan Krueger and Diane Whitmore found smaller class size can significantly improve the academic performance of African-American students. The study also found that smaller classes in the early years have lasting benefits for students. The study found a decrease in high school drop out rates overall and increased college entrance exam-taking rates for those who were in small classes in K-3.

The study was based on a class-size experiment in Tennessee called Project STAR, which tracked the progress of 11,600 students placed in small classes of 13 to 17 pupils from kindergarten to third grade. Results from the Tennessee Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study also showed that reducing class sizes in grades K-3 to 13-17 students substantially increases children's reading and mathematics scores. The study further found that the gains are particularly significant among minority and economically disadvantaged students.

Similarly, in Bridging the Achievement Gap, authors John Chubb and Tom Loveless state that African-American students do much better in small classes. Chubb and Loveless recommend a class size of 15 students in early grades. According to the authors 2002 book, research in Wisconsins SAGE (Student Achievement Guarantee in Education) Program found that Reduced class size results in narrowing of the achievement gap between African American and white students.

John Rogers, director of UCLAs Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA), said he is not surprised by the California Watch findings. He said UCLA IDEA will release a study in January that queried public school principals on how budget cuts have impacted their schools and how the economic crisis is affecting students families. Class size increases have been a common response, he said.

Rogers, who is also an associate professor in UCLAs Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, said its important to note that California already has the largest class sizes in the country in middle and high schools, particularly in the subject areas of English, social studies and science.

Californias 20-1 ratio in K-3 is still above the national average, but not in the bottom reaches, Rogers said. We do know that the most wealthy districts have been able to inoculate themselves by passing parcel taxes and drawing on property tax wealth. Some districts are not feeling the pain, Rogers said. The wealthy districts, he said, certainly have fewer African-American students than the state as a whole.

In the current economic crisis, he said, it is a real concern that students access to quality teaching, the most important educational opportunity, is being undercut. Its not a coincidence, Rogers said, that affluent parents either choose to send their children to private schools or to public schools that maintain small classes. But, he notes, Not all parents have the economic means to put their kids in small classes.

While some of the states large urban school districts have seen the number of students in K-3 classrooms creep up to 30 students, such has not been the case in two of the San Francisco Bay Areas largest districts. Both San Francisco and Oakland public school districts have so far been able to maintain class sizes at 20 in schools serving a predominantly African-American population.

The San Francisco Unified School District has been able to maintain class size at 20 in schools that serve a predominantly African-American student body through a combination of funding from the city and a state grant, according to district spokesperson Gentle Blythe.

For the current school year, SFUSD received city reserve or rainy day funds, Blythe said. Weve been fortunate. Weve been able to maintain our teaching workforce, which is the biggest cost in our budget, she said.

Blythe said the district saw a slight increase in enrollment in kindergarten, which led to an increase in kindergarten class size from 20 students to 22 students in some schools. Thats still low, relative to a lot of districts in the state, she said.

The increased class size in kindergarten did not occur in the districts low-performing schools however. The class sizes in K-3 were maintained at 20 with funding from a Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) grant from the state. The QEIA funds came out of settlement between the teachers union and the state, Blythe said.

The QEIA funding went to 14 SFUSD schools, and several of them are predominantly African-American, Blythe said. She said schools receiving QEIA funds that serve predominantly African-American students included Charles Drew, Malcolm X and Hillcrest elementaries in the Southeast section of the city and Rosa Parks, John Muir and Paul Revere in the Western Addition. All of these still have a ratio of 1 teacher to 20 in grades K-3, she said.

Although the current school year funding for teachers is secured, she said, We anticipate a shortfall over the next two years of $83 million. So the school board and staff will face challenging decisions for allocating resources.

Oakland Unified School District also was able to maintain its 20-1 teacher student ratio in grades K-3 this school year. However, changes in class size will be on the table for the 2010-2011 school year.

Oakland schools regained full local control earlier this year and hired a new superintendent. Closing the achievement gap between African-American students and whites and Asians is a priority at OUSD.

School district spokesperson Troy Flint said maintaining class size at 20 will be very challenging for Oakland and any urban school district in the current economy. Its something that our cabinet has been talking about quite a bit, he said.

Currently the district is looking at cutting $20 million from its 2010-2011 budget. However, that figure will likely change, depending on what the governors final budget revision looks like in January, Flint said. Things change pretty drastically in a quarter.

In order to keep class sizes small Flint said, Were tapping every funding source we can find. He said this year the district used federal stimulus funds in order not to have to lay off teachers. He said private foundation funding is also being sought, but since many foundations have lost substantial portions of their portfolios these funds are limited.

Over the last 18 months weve cut $40 million from our budget. With an operating budget of just under $500 million, were talking about cutting more than 20 percent from our budget over the next three years, said Flint.

Gail Berkley is editor of the Sun-Reporter in San Francisco.

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