Class sizes cause concern

GLENDALE — A meeting Monday night between school district administrators and parents at Glenoaks Elementary School about reducing class size ballooned into a larger discussion about how such initiatives are difficult because of current education funding levels.

School district administrators called the meeting after a group of fourth-grade parents sent a letter to the Glendale Unified School District Board of Education expressing their frustration with the current sizes of the school’s three fourth-grade classes, said Lyle Slack, the parent who drafted the letter to the school board. In the letter, Glenoaks parents wrote that they would like to see another fourth-grade teacher hired at the school, and the class sizes brought below 30, Slack said.

The three fourth-grade classes at Glenoaks have 36, 35 and 34 students, according to school district data.

That is too many children in a room, Slack said, and makes it harder for teachers to teach and for children to get the attention they deserve.

“I think the class sizes have reached a level where there is a simmering, deep concern among parents about what is going on,” Slack said.

Administrators share parents’ interest in smaller class sizes, said Alice Petrossian, assistant superintendent for elementary education. But the school district can’t favor one school above another, and reducing class sizes across the board at every school is an expensive proposition at a time when the school district is trying to save money in anticipation of potentially large cuts to state education funding for the coming fiscal year.

“Because of its cost, and where we are financially because of the state, we aren’t able to provide these things,” Petrossian said.

For instance, it would cost the school district about $1 million to reduce the current class sizes among grades four through 12 by one student, Supt. Michael Escalante said.

In order to shrink class sizes, the school district would have to either cut other programs or find additional revenue, Petrossian and Escalante said.

“We can’t do it on the current funding levels,” Escalante said.

Slack and fellow Glenoaks parent Geri Lightwood grew concerned about class size this year as their children moved from third grade, where class sizes at Glenoaks are capped at 20 through the state-subsidized Class Size Reduction program, to fourth grade, where class sizes are closer to 35.

But these sizes aren’t any different from other elementary schools in the district, Petrossian said. The school board has made the “moral” decision to cap class sizes in grades four and higher at 36, Petrossian said, but many schools have classes of around 35 students.

Within Glendale Unified, the average number of students per teacher in grades four through eight is 33.1, which is the guideline set by the state, Petrossian said.

But Slack and other parents pointed out that, according to data on the California Department of Education website, surrounding school districts had managed to have lower average class-size ratios for grades four through eight. During the 2006-07 school year, the school districts in Burbank, Pasadena, La Cañada Flintridge and Los Angeles all had lower average class sizes for these grades than in Glendale Unified, according to data from the state education department.

Escalante said he was willing to investigate these figures, and to find out if those school districts receive extra money from other sources that allows them to have smaller classes.

School board members and school district staff members thanked parents for coming to the meeting and showing their interest in an issue that, while hitting close to home, ties into the overall state of education in California.

“We don’t seem to be able to raise the ire of many of the parents in the community about what is happening in Sacramento,” Escalante said. “This may be ground zero, where that swell of support starts.”

Glendale Council PTA President Liz Arnold welcomed parents to join the council’s letter-writing campaign to state legislators to express their opposition to the governor’s proposed budget for next year, Arnold said.

Slack and Lightwood said they had mixed feelings about the meeting’s outcome.

Slack said he understood the strength of the school district’s budget pressures, but he’d like to see the issue of class size addressed nonetheless.

“It’s hard to argue that they don’t have genuine budget problems,” Slack said.

But there seemed to be budget pressures of some sort every year, and that shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to make needed changes, he said.

“If we just accept the excuse every year, we’re never going to get it done,” Slack said.


 ANGELA HOKANSON covers education. She may be reached at (818) 637-3238 or by e-mail at angela.hokanson@latimes.com.

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