Real talk on what it means when the state doesn't consider growth in its funding of education.
By Laura Heinauer | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011
For many students, the start of the school year has meant sharing tight quarters. For others, it has meant getting used to one new teacher and then another .
Budget-tightening moves, coupled with a promise by the Texas Education Agency to be more lenient in granting waivers on state rules capping class sizes, have made for, at times, a chaotic start of the school year for many families.
Two months after school began, some students are still being shuffled around as districts try to get below the cap — 22 students per class in kindergarten to fourth grade.
State lawmakers debated, but didn't approve, changing the cap in this year's legislative session.
"It has been really tough on all of us," said Dora Trevino, a teacher at Harris Elementary School in East Austin.
She started the year with 28 students, then 24 and had as many as 30 at one point. The district just hired a new teacher, and now Trevino has 21 children in her fourth-grade class.
"I thought I had it under control" at 28, she said. "But when it got up to 30, it came with behavior problems and low academics. ... It was a lot of stress and work at home and overwhelming, but I just said, 'It's going to be OK. We're going to see this year through .'"
The Leander school district, which increased its student-teacher ratios to cut costs, went from asking for waivers for eight classes in 2010-11 to 95 so far this year.
Karie Lynn McSpadden , the district's assistant superintendent for human resources, said the reason there are so many more waivers this year, compared with some districts, is that Leander set its caps a little higher — 23 for second grade and 24 for third and fourth grades — expecting that it would not exceed those numbers and use contingency funds to hire more teachers if needed.
"I think at the end of the year, we will end up with lower class sizes than the districts around us," McSpadden said.
To reduce Austin's need for waivers, Michael Houser, the district's chief resources officer, said the district aggressively moved staff members and hired 90 more teachers this fall. He said the new hires cost about $750,000, which came out of the anticipated savings from the layoffs that the board approved earlier in the year.
"This year, it became more of a problem in that we did staff at 24 to 1," he said, explaining how the district had thought the law would change. "We were pretty much assured that would happen, and when it didn't in June, we decided that we would go back and spend some money and back fill these positions as needed."
Austin officials said the district has applied for 18 waivers this year, compared with two at this time in 2010-11.
That's much fewer than some districts, particularly some urban ones. State officials said they expect the Houston school district to apply for more than 1,000 waivers.
Meanwhile, the Round Rock school district has managed to decrease the number of overcrowded classes. Spokeswoman JoyLynn Occhiuzzi said the district slightly increased its staffing ratios and transferred teachers to other schools and grades when necessary.
"At the end of the day, we had to hire 217 teachers due to attrition and growth, which is pretty much what our norm would be," she said.
Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said that, this year, the agency is granting waivers based on financial hardship. The agency anticipates more than 6,500 classes across Texas will exceed the cap this fall — almost triple the 2,238 classes in the 2010-11 school year, she said.
"We're going to be looking closely before granting them at schools that were rated unacceptable," Ratcliffe said, referring to the lowest mark a school can get in the state's academic accountability system. "It was too late to do it this year. But next year, we're probably going to ask for additional details."
Many Central Texas classrooms that received waivers this year exceed class size limits by just one or two students, according to information provided by area districts.
Research on the impact of smaller classes on student learning is mixed, though generally, teachers and parents prefer the smaller class sizes.
"Any parent who's had kids that age can appreciate what adding two 5-year-olds to a class could do to that dynamic," said state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, adding that he is concerned about student learning and teacher morale.
Rae Nwosu, president of Education Austin, a labor group that represents about 4,000 Austin school district employees, said morale has suffered in Austin.
"It's not about having the extra students — though space does become an issue when you try to crowd so many students in a classroom that wasn't built to handle that," Nwosu said. "The biggest problem is the extra work ... on top of already having the additional students.
"Morale is low, and I don't understand why our trustees don't see this and why they haven't said something to the superintendent."
For her part, Trevino seems to be taking things in stride .
"I'm hoping (class enrollment) will stay at 21, but if it increases, I am still going to teach," Trevino said. "I'm still going to be positive, and I am still going to do everything I can for these kids, because this is what I love to do."