Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
In a geometry class with 34 students, the sound of teens tapping protractors and comparing answers on an assignment quickly escalates to a din.
Heidi Draper, who teaches math at Sandia High School, said volume gets out of hand more quickly in large classes and it takes more effort to give students individual attention.
On a recent morning, Draper put a geometry problem on the interactive white board at the front of the class, and students began solving it. As they did so, Draper moved quickly around the crowded room, trying to make sure she had time to help those who were having trouble.
For the past three years, Albuquerque Public Schools has been operating under a class size waiver from the state, which allows classes to exceed state maximums. This year and last, the waiver has allowed APS to exceed the minimums by 7 percent. For example, secondary teachers can now have a daily course load of 171 students instead of 160. In fiscal 2011, the district had a 3 percent waiver.
Many districts statewide have been using waivers since state revenues shrank with the nationwide recession and lawmakers cut funding to education. Some of that funding has since been restored, but has not kept pace with increases in districts’ fixed costs like utilities.
The state administrative code on class size allows waivers, but does not allow a district to have waivers for more than two consecutive years. Beginning in fall 2009 and continuing through the end of this school year, laws have been in place that allow districts to receive consecutive waivers due to budget constraints. That law is set to sunset, and if it is not renewed this session, APS might have to hire about 300 teachers to get back to the pre-waiver class maximums.
That would cost the district about $18 million, although finance officials cautioned that is a preliminary figure.
Charter schools have largely been able to dodge the issue because they can cap student enrollment at a certain size, while traditional public schools must take all comers from their enrollment area.
Sen. Tim Keller, D-Albuquerque, has sponsored a joint resolution that would add a section to the state Constitution, requiring smaller classes by the 2020-21 school year. However, the resolution would allow waivers until then under certain conditions, including lack of funding.
Under Keller’s resolution, legal class size maximums would eventually be smaller than they are now: 18 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes, 22 students per class in grades four through eight, and 25 students per class in high schools, except for electives like band.
The resolution also places the onus on the Legislature to give districts enough money for smaller classes. As written, the resolution says, beginning in 2015, “the legislature shall provide sufficient funds to reduce the average number of students in each classroom by at least two students per year,” until the final requirements are reached by 2020. If passed, the constitutional amendment would go before voters.
Keller said he believes a constitutional amendment would take the legislative politics out of class size and would put pressure on lawmakers to fund education adequately. He said it could also make a big difference in improving education in New Mexico.
“We need to be having a dialogue at ‘this big problem, big solution’ level, as opposed to having these small tweaks every year that really don’t move the needle in terms of our educational outcomes,” Keller said.
He said he thinks the plan is financially viable, since it would be phased in over a number of years.
“I think over time it’s doable, and it’s really just catching up with decades of neglect,” he said.
Draper has been teaching for 16 years, and she said individual attention for students is the biggest loss when class sizes grow.
“The big thing is the loss of more time to spend with kids,” Draper said.
She said there are other challenges one might not consider: if two students are being disruptive and she wants to separate them, there may not be any room to move them apart when many desks are pressed together.
She also said the larger classes have increased the time she spends outside of class, grading, calling parents and tracking students’ progress throughout the year. She estimated it has increased her weekly workload by about 2 1/2 hours.
“In terms of our paperwork for attendance and tardies and calling parents, there’s so many more parents you’re having to call home on,” Draper said. “It’s a lot more students we’re having to watch and follow, trying not to lose anyone along the way.”
The 7 percent waiver is more noticeable in middle and high schools than in elementary schools, because secondary class sizes are measured based on how many students are in a teacher’s daily courseload. At the high school level, teachers are normally limited to teaching 160 students per day. With the waiver, that increases to 171 students per day.
At Sandia, students said larger classes make it harder to learn, although teachers are doing their best.
“When there’s more than 30 kids, things get a little rowdy,” said Kira Preston, a 17-year-old senior. She said when there are fewer students, teachers can move around the class to see whether students are understanding the lesson. That’s harder to do when classes are big.
Crowding can be even worse in electives. There is a waiting list of about 300 students to get into Unna Valdez’s beginning culinary arts class, which she has capped at three sections of 35 students. She said the large class size has forced her to make some changes to her curriculum. For instance, she has started choosing recipes with more steps, so students working in larger groups can all participate.
Eddie Soto, APS associate superintendent for secondary schools, said the district does get involved when classes get so big that they become unmanageable or unsafe.
“If, for instance, we have an English teacher with 46 students, we have got to do something,” Soto said. “Maybe we create another section, maybe a teacher sells their prep, and we create another section.”
When teachers sell their preparation time, it means they give up having a class period for planning and are paid extra salary for that time.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal