By Rose Arce, CNN
Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on overcrowding and undercrowding in schools. You can see Part 2 here.
New York’s Forest Hills High School comes alive at 7:30 in the morning when students swarm in to start their day. But there are so many students, that the school has created a second shift at 8:30 and a third at 10:30 a.m. By the time the last students arrive, the first are already having a very early lunch.
That’s just one solution schools around the country have found to the vexing problem of overcrowding. In schools across the country, trailers line parking lots and athletic fields, extracurricular programs and arts classes are vanishing and gym classes, which have higher size limits, are packed. The schools have lost nearly a quarter million teachers since 2008 because of budget cuts, and the long-lingering aftermath of the recession continues to bite.
“Overcrowding means students don’t get the attention they need from their teachers, they just don’t. They don’t learn as much, they withdraw, they become disruptive, some drop out,” said Leonie Haimson, a parent who runs Class Size Matters, a group advocating for better student-teacher ratios. “Parents and teachers know they can’t do their best in classes of 30 or more.”
At Forest Hills, a school built for 1,400, is housing nearly 4,000. The building is a showcase for the New York public schools, nestled in a very diverse middle class community in Queens that has big houses. Its vast football field and towering ceilings mask an overcrowding situation that has some of the biggest class sizes in the city.
Principal Saul Gootnick shrugs off concerns that academics could suffer.
“The city of New York says there is a maximum of 34 students in every class, so there are 34 students in this class,” the fast-talking social studies teacher says as he walks through one history classroom. “There are no oversized classes in this building. We work with the United Federation of Teachers, and we see to it that every class is in compliance, 34 is a very manageable number, depending on you know, the needs of each and every student and how you handle every student.
“The motto of Forest Hills High School is, it all begins and ends in a classroom, and the job of the teacher is to know who the students are, what their needs are, what the focus is and we did this.”
Across the country, students are packed in
Nationwide, there are many schools bursting at the seams. Leonie Haimson points to a National Center for Education Statistics study that says about 14% of all schools are exceeding capacity, and 8% are overcrowding their building size by more than 25%.
A study done by UCLA concluded that one out of three California students were being educated in overcrowded schools.
South Gate Middle School in Los Angeles had 4,200 children in a building meant for 800. To complicate matters, more than half of the children in California’s overcrowded schools were non-English speaking kids trying to master a new language.
The only schools with more severe overcrowding were in Utah, the nation’s fastest-growing state with a high birth rate. It also has some of the least money per pupil. That’s one consequence, in part, of having so many children per tax-paying adult.
At Truman Elementary, outside Salt Lake City, there are several families with multiple kids just a year apart.
They have plenty of space in the classroom but not enough teachers to go around. In nearby Taylorsville, the elementary school has kids in three trailers because a school built for 500 children has 740.
“We have special education and reading sharing space,” said administrator John Randell. “We have a gym that’s a multipurpose room with a stage. The stage is a parent’s center and music class for band and orchestra. We have to schedule around physical education. Lunch starts at 11:30 and goes until 1:15.”
The school is also half Hispanic, with many immigrants needing language instruction, something teachers find challenging with so many children. Howard Driggs Elementary, also outside Salt Lake City, has a cart in place of an art room and uses a multipurpose room for gym.
The heart of the matter: Student-teacher ratios
As the discussion over quality schools has shifted focus to charter schools, testing and better teaching, advocates such as Haimson say they have become a smokescreen covering up the biggest issue for parents: rising teacher-student ratios. “I don’t know that there has ever been a study that didn’t show that class size doesn’t matter,” she said. “In every survey of parents and teachers, this is what they care the most about.”
But the discussion is shifting. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was campaigning for his job, he promised smaller class sizes because he believed they would improve learning. As recently as early December, he was singing a different tune, telling students at MIT that “double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for students” and accusing unions of driving down their own salaries by pushing for smaller classes. Dennis Walcott, chancellor of New York City schools, has said class size is important but that effective teaching is more important.
New York, with its 1 million students, has the largest school system in the country. This year, the United Federation of Teachers, New York’s teachers union, did an annual survey of how many children were in each classroom. They found that 7,000 classrooms exceeded the limits of what they deemed acceptable for proper learning.
“Budget cuts have a human cost,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew.
Mulgrew estimates that 91% of New York schools have lost resources because of budget cuts, everything from teachers to textbooks. Nearly two-thirds of the schools have cut back on instructional supplies directly related to learning, 60% of schools have reduced after-school programs and half have fewer tutoring and extracurricular activities. The UFT’s contract specifies that class size limits be 25 for kindergarten, 32 for grades 1 to 6 and 33 for middle school and 34 for high school.
AT PS1, a school in downtown Manhattan with many Chinatown students, there is one kindergarten class with 32 kids, according to the PTA.
“Because the great majority of our students do not speak English at home, our school prided itself on keeping class sizes as low as possible,” said union leader Christine Wong, a playground filled to capacity behind her.
An experiment that pays off
One experiment in recent years underscores how relevant class size can be to performance. San Diego used stimulus dollars to reduce class sizes in its 30 poorest districts to 16 students in kindergarten through second grade. The result was a rise in test scores from 45% to 56% proficient in English. California’s schools now face steep budget cuts that would reduce the number of teachers and therefore increase class sizes.
Reducing class size is “one of four educational reforms that the Institute of Education Science says have been proven to work,” said Haimson. “That’s the research arm of the Department of Education.”
The students at Forest Hills High School have the benefit of smart boards, paid for by dollars their principal solicited from local leaders. Gootnick has also found space for art, music, drama and extracurricular activities by taking over the attic, basement and even a steeple that houses the clock. He has broken the school up into academies and makes attending the prom contingent on coming to class.
Despite being one of the most overcrowded schools in the city,Forest Hills was rated an A by the Department of Education. “We have an 87% graduation rate; we have 97% of those kids going to college. We make it so, that we make it as pleasant as possible,” he said.
He has earned high praise from students and unionized teachers for his efforts.
Santiago Gomez, a senior, says, “during periods 6 and 7 you definitely feel it, I mean walking down the halls, and it’s very claustrophobic. I think the way we do it's great because kids still learn from each other.”
Even while praising Gootnick’s progress, Eddy Mesidor, UFT representative for Forest Hills, laments that the overcrowding at the school is the worst he’s seen in 20 years.
“If we have different students at different levels in the same classroom and there are so many of them during the span of time ... It is quite difficult to reach out to each one of them.”