Some L.A. classrooms bursting at the seams

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If there had been rafters, somebody would have been hanging from them.

As it was, every seat was taken. One young woman plopped on the floor, next to a microwave oven. A young man stood in the corner, shifting from one foot to the other. Three teens scrunched on top of a desk. Everyone’s attention was riveted on the slight, soft-spoken man pacing the small patch of bare linoleum in front of them.

It was a scene to warm the heart of any musician or stand-up comic. Alas, John Collier isn’t an entertainer. He is a teacher, and this was his third period U.S. history class at Fairfax High School on the city’s Westside. Forty-five students were shoehorned into a classroom designed for perhaps 30 -- and this on a day when three students were absent.

The impact of California’s budget cuts has varied from school to school. Because of the patchwork of federal and state funding for education, some campuses have felt the pinch far less than others. But at schools like Fairfax, hard hit by the $6 billion in education reductions enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is shaping up to be one difficult year.


“I’m very frustrated,” Collier said. “I mean, it’s a good class -- it’s an honors class, and the kids are really good. But it’s unreasonable to ask me to teach a class of 48 kids and give attention to everybody.”

Theoretically, the budget cuts have hit almost every school district equally. But some districts, especially those with growing enrollment, have weathered the storm because they salted money away during flush years or extracted significant concessions from labor unions, according to Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn.

Glendale Unified, for instance, has seen “fairly minimal” cuts this year, largely because it has tapped into reserves built up over several years, Chief Financial Officer Eva Lueck said. So far, the district has maintained a 20-student maximum in almost all its kindergarten through third-grade classes, she said.

Long Beach Unified, too, has been able to avoid big bumps in class sizes by cutting in other areas, spokesman Chris Eftychiou said. Still, officials in both districts said they might not be able to hold on much longer.

“We’re right on that threshold where we’ve cut to the bone, and if we don’t see the budget situation change rather quickly, it’s likely that we’ll see larger class sizes in the near future, probably in the primary grades,” Eftychiou said. “It’s an expensive endeavor to keep a 20:1 ratio in the lower grades.”

Many districts have given up on the state’s popular class size reduction program, created by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. Capistrano Unified in Orange County boosted its average class sizes this year from 20 to 25 for first grade, and up to 30 for second and third grades. Santa Ana Unified raised its class sizes to 23 for first grade, 24 for second and 30 for third.


There has been no across-the-board increase in Los Angeles Unified, where Supt. Ramon C. Cortines has given schools the option of making other cuts in order to keep as many teachers in the classrooms as possible.

“You see a patchwork because everybody kind of voted about how they wanted to spend their dollars,” said Judy Elliott, the district’s chief academic officer. Some campuses were able to make up for at least some of their lost state funding with federal stimulus money or with grants aimed at helping disadvantaged students, she said.

Still, many L.A. Unified schools have lost some teachers, resulting in bigger classes. There have been significant cuts to clerical, custodial and cafeteria staffs and, in secondary schools, to counselors and administrators as well.

Cortines was apparently startled during the first week of school when he walked into Cecily Myart-Cruz’s sixth-grade English class at Emerson Middle School in Westwood. There were 57 students in the class, some arrayed in three neat rows on the floor. The superintendent, according to multiple accounts, turned to Principal Kathy Gonnella and said, “We are fixing this, aren’t we?”

The answer was yes, and Myart-Cruz now has a more manageable 36 students in the class. As it turns out, according to both teacher and principal, the problem was not a shortage of teachers. Rather, it was that the cuts in Emerson’s counseling staff had delayed the process of “balancing” the teaching load so students could be equally distributed throughout the school day.

The cutbacks in education funding come against a backdrop of steady statewide gains on standardized tests. Few schools have done much better than Fairfax, where the Academic Performance Index -- the state’s main gauge of student achievement -- has shot up 86 points since Principal Edward Zubiate took over three years ago. It now stands at 733, still below the statewide goal of 800, but well above the California average, despite a student population that is less affluent than most.


Teachers at Fairfax and elsewhere say they will do their best to keep up the momentum, but they worry about how to do that. Research is mixed about whether smaller classes translate to academic gains, but it does point to a boost for disadvantaged students.

Moreover, it isn’t clear whether any research has studied the impact of classes as large as some of those in L.A. high schools this fall. “There actually was a study done in Israel where 40 was the cutoff because of an ancient biblical teaching known as the Maimonides rule,” said Brian Stecher, an education researcher at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. That 12th century rule set 40 as the maximum allowable class size.

Zubiate said Fairfax has made gains by focusing on what he described as fundamentals, including training teachers more about the “how” of teaching than the “what” of course content. He said he has also introduced ideas about how the brain works and how students learn.

And, he said, there has been a relentless focus on “relationships, relationships, relationships,” a recognition that students respond best to teachers who care about them as individuals. That, of course, becomes more difficult as class sizes expand.

Zubiate has done what he can to keep some class sizes manageable. Ninth-grade algebra courses are limited to about 30 students per class; ninth- and 10th-grade English are in the 25-to-30 range. But with about eight fewer teachers, something had to give, and so other English and math classes have gone from an average of around 34 students last year to 42 this year. And other subjects -- social studies, science, the arts -- are averaging 47 students per class.

“Understand, that’s an average,” the principal said. So, while some classes are smaller, others are nudging 50. Teachers might have 200 students in the course of a day, which means 200 tests or essays to grade. Students risk feeling anonymous.


“It’s more difficult to focus on the work,” said Fairfax sophomore Chase Morris, 15. “The teachers -- you can’t hear them clearly. If you need help, the teacher can’t help you as well because they have so many students.”

For all the challenges, Zubiate said he’s determined to keep his eye on the prize.

As another Los Angeles principal, Tracie Bryant of Saturn Street Elementary insisted: “There will not be excuses. . . . There’s no point in standing in the middle of our accident. We’re going to dust off, get our car fixed and get it back on the road.”