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November 29, 2015

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Amid crowds, some students are left behind

Teachers say increasingly crammed classrooms make it hard to reach segment of pupils


Justin M. Bowen

Arthur Gamboa leads a discussion with his 38 students in his Modern Literature class at Palo Verde High School Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

Overcrowded Classrooms

Dedra Steinline has her class of 36 take shifts at the microscopes due to her large class size at Palo Verde High School Wednesday, May 11, 2011. Launch slideshow »
Dwight Jones

Dwight Jones

The former Catholic priest moves among his flock of high school seniors, questioning, listening, seeking eye contact with his students as they read aloud from Isaac Asimov’s series “Foundation.” The work, which is set so far in the future that people have forgotten about Earth, isn’t easy to absorb. Arthur Gamboa is working hard to engage the teenagers, but that’s difficult in this class of 40 Palo Verde High School seniors. The room is cramped. The aisles are narrow. There’s no space to walk behind teens seated in the back rows.

The 48-year-old teacher worries that he’s not clicking with a significant portion of his students because of the crowded conditions spurred by a three-year expansion of class sizes. “One half can get my presence by my walking among them. The other doesn’t,” Gamboa said. “There’s also another challenge, just trying to keep a student focused.”

Educators say 10 to 20 percent of the students will excel in any classroom, no matter how crowded. The bottom 10 to 20 percent will lag behind; class size is irrelevant. It’s the students in the broad middle — more than 180,000 in the Clark County School District — who will suffer the most as class sizes balloon amid state and local budget cuts, or so the thinking goes.

Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones said of looming budget cuts and growing class sizes, “I’ve made it pretty clear what is being proposed right now is just too devastating for the School District.”

Jones thinks the cutoff point for classroom effectiveness could be 30, 35 or 40 students in the upper grades. It’s a hard number to pin down. There are so many variables — the complexity of a subject, the intellectual and social skills of students, teacher skills, the intensity of parental involvement — to cite a few.

At some point teachers find that it’s increasingly difficult to reach individual students. Longtime Palo Verde teachers remember classrooms with five to 10 fewer students just a decade ago, settings that offered more opportunities for one-on-one contact. Then came the boom and its rapid growth in the neighborhood. And then the bust and shrinking government resources to support education. Students were crammed into classrooms.

“I’ve witnessed that the last few years,” Gamboa said. “The larger the numbers in the classroom, the more the problems that are exacerbated.”

Jones cites a familiar refrain among teachers working in crowded classrooms: “Am I giving them exactly what they need?” Some of his most effective classroom teachers say they aren’t.

In the 1970s, school districts throughout the country pushed for class-size reduction. The goal was to provide a nurturing atmosphere for students, particularly in the earlier grades when research shows that the foundation is laid for a child’s math, reading and writing skills.

Educators, school boards, legislators, teachers unions and taxpayers joined to invest in lower student-teacher ratios. Advocates say the research is clear — smaller classes provide a healthier learning environment.

Critics of class-size reduction say the results aren’t so certain. They often point to inner-city schools where public school systems adopted smaller classrooms, yet the results on standardized test scores at those schools have declined. To the critics, the chief result of class-size reduction has been increased spending per-pupil and higher taxes.

But most educators say conducting a well-run class becomes difficult when teachers are increasingly focused on crowd control and discipline. Teachers fret about losing many of the cues that come with physical closeness to students in need of help. They miss the uncertain eye movements, the nervous body language, the altered breathing patterns.

“At some point individuals don’t feel like they’re teaching anymore,” said Randall Boone, department chairman of curriculum and instruction at UNLV’s College of Education. “Instead, they feel as though they’re just providing a place for students.”

However, Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, doesn’t buy that analysis. The 40-year educator, writer and researcher thinks smaller class size is not the key to a strong education.

Rather, he stresses the need to hire and retain good teachers while ridding districts of their worst. An advocate of the type of reforms being pushed by Gov. Brian Sandoval and Jones — ending what is informally known as teacher tenure, the execution of effective teacher evaluations, and the annual firing of teachers who record poor academic growth rates among students. Hanushek thinks parents in Clark County should be more concerned about the coming layoffs of good young teachers who lack seniority.

The Stanford professor, who appears in Davis Guggenheim’s well-received 2010 documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” argues that if you lined up all of a school’s teachers in a row and graded each for his students’ growth in standardized test performance between the start and finish of a school year, you could get rid of 5 to 8 percent of that group. Over time, he said, there would be a dramatic improvement in student performance.

“The only thing that matters is teacher quality,” Hanushek said, noting that class size is largely irrelevant to a good teacher. “There are huge differences among teachers that are unrelated to their background characteristics. If you go for seniority, then that’s the mistake.”

Click to enlarge photo

Principal Dan Phillips, is photographed in his office at Palo Verde High School Wednesday, May 11, 2011.

The student population at the 15-year-old Palo Verde High School has changed with the recession, reflecting the new reality of its Summerlin neighborhood, some of which has an effect on academic performance. The school’s homeless population has grown, many families bouncing among the homes of friends and relatives. Grandparents have taken in children and grandchildren. Multiple families are living in what had been single-family homes, some renting, others owning. Students are stressed, hungry, tired and a growing number are not prepared to learn. Principal Dan Phillips thinks growing class size is one more disruption.

“We’re starting to see the stress out there,” Phillips said. “The first 10 or 15 years of their lives they’ve known nothing but affluence ... or there was a facade of affluence.” Some students are couch surfers, staying in the homes of friends, having nowhere else to live. “Education,” Phillips said, “is one area they think they have control.”

Budget cuts have reduced Palo Verde’s faculty from 160 teachers two years ago to an expected 108 next year. Classes have been eliminated in art, photography, auto shop, costume design, the sort of vocational classes that can set a strong foundation for students who don’t excel in more traditional subjects.

Phillips does the math: A class of 45 students typically has six non-motivated students; 20 are in the middle but not particularly motivated. He fears that the “vast middle” will grow with all of the cutting. “The filters we have to catch kids are going to fall through,” Phillips said.

Class-size growth in the valley’s schools is invariably linked to the construction boom that saw the region’s population explode from 708,750 in 1989 to 2 million before the economic collapse. From 1994 to 2008, the School District’s student population exploded to 310,000 students from 150,000. Bond measures were passed to build schools. Property taxes were raised to pay for their operation. A makeshift mix of temporary revenue packages was adopted by state lawmakers to help fund education. Yet educators and public school advocates say schools continued to lack the resources needed for smaller high school classes.

“Personally I’m glad that all of my children have graduated from the School District. I think the future is dismal,” said Carolyn Edwards, School Board president. A decade ago she lobbied Nevada legislators for a long-term plan to fund education.

Carolyn Edwards

Carolyn Edwards

She bemoans what she views as the failure of state lawmakers to adopt such a strategy, one that might have found a more stable funding structure for the state’s public schools, colleges and universities. “There is no vision here,” she said. “There is no future planning here.”

High school graduates from the late-1980s recall science and math classes with 20 to 25 students. It was a setup that played to the complexity of the curriculum and the needs of students in science labs, where one-on-one time with a good biology or chemistry teacher can be the difference between a student who comes to love or hate a subject.

It’s particularly frustrating for Palo Verde science teacher Dedra Steinline to see 38 of her 40 lab stations filled with sophomore biology students. She graduated 20 years ago from Basic High School, and she recalls much smaller science classes.

“There always seemed to be plenty of room. We had our own lab tables, drawers where we kept our supplies. It just felt bigger,” Steinline said. Thirteen years ago, during her first year as a teacher, she had 20 to 25 kids in her Palo Verde classrooms. “I felt like I really knew the kids,” she reflects. “There’s a whole different atmosphere when you have fewer kids. They become more of a family. Students pick up the kids lagging behind.”

Steinline, whose husband also teaches science at Palo Verde, considers the anticipated budget cuts, and considers what it could mean for next year’s classes. “You have the kids in the middle. They could go either way,” she said. “I could lose them. They could go the other way. That’s what I see.”

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