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Texas Schools Cope as Classes Expand and Staffs Shrink

Alex Train's first grade classroom only had 22 students at the beginning of the year, but has added two more since at Wanke Elementary School in north San Antonio, Friday, March 9, 2012.
Jennifer Whitney/Texas Tribune
Alex Train's first grade classroom only had 22 students at the beginning of the year, but has added two more since at Wanke Elementary School in north San Antonio, Friday, March 9, 2012.

SAN ANTONIO — Ask Phyllis Causey what time she goes to lunch, and the third-grade teacher will give a very specific answer: 11:55 a.m.

“I live on a timer,” she said.

Every minute is accounted for in her meticulously planned workdays. To some extent, that is true every school year. But last fall, for the first time in her 12 years of teaching, 23 students were enrolled in her San Antonio elementary school class — making those minutes even more precious.

“As a teacher, when you know you are planning the day out for 23 kids, every single minute counts,” she said. “It’s an art and a science to balance out everybody.”

Many Texas teachers have found themselves in a similar predicament. Texas EducationAgencydata for the 2011-12 school year show that the number of elementary classes exceeding the 22-student cap has soared to 8,479 from 2,238 last school year.

Texas has had the 22-student cap for kindergarten through fourth-grade classes since 1984, and districts can apply for exemptions for financial reasons. But during the2011 legislative session, to ease the pain of a roughly $5.4 billion reduction in state financing that did not account for the estimated influx of 170,000 new students over the next two years — and after an attempt to do away with the cap failed — lawmakers made those exemptions easier to obtain. Texas schools, which have shed approximately 25,000 employees this school year, including more than 10,000 teachers, have jumped at the chance to trim costs.

Research is mixed on the effect of class size on learning, but many educators agree that adding just two students to an already full classroom can intensify the challenge for teachers. Some worry that increasing class sizes hurts the neediest students most.

Budget cuts have affected all of the state’s 1,200-plus school districts and charters, but the 102 fastest-growing districts, which have absorbed 92 percent of the growth in student population since 2007, have been hit the hardest by increasing class sizes. About 46 percent of these fast-growth districts have campuses with waivers, compared with 28 percent of non-fast-growth districts, according to an analysis of TEA data by the Fast Growth School Coalition. The coalition advocates for districts that have an enrollment of at least 2,500 and have grown by at least 10 percent or 3,500 students over the past five years. Those districts educate about 40 percent of the state’s students.

In the past, these schools have been able to add staff members and build facilities as the number of students increases. But now, even as the student body continues to grow, the schools have had to drop employees and delay building projects to cut costs, said David Vroonland, the chairman of the coalition and superintendent of the Frenship Independent School District, outside Lubbock.

His district has avoided requesting class-size exemptions for now, but he expects that to change next year. “We’re anticipating we’ll be at 24 or above,” he said. “And there’s very little we can do about it.”

Some fast-growth districts may be better prepared than others to take on larger classes, because they have had to plan for ever-increasing student populations, and they are already familiar with methods like dividing students into smaller groups for instruction.

In Northside ISD, where Causey teaches, 64 campuses had requested class-size waivers as of early February. Brian Woods, the district’s deputy superintendent for administration, said the district is used to dealing with more students, who enroll throughout the year. What is different this year, he said, is that the budget has made it more difficult to hire a new teacher when a class hits 22 students. The district has an internal policy to keep class enrollment in kindergarten through second grade at 23 students or fewer, he said. Third and fourth grades, he said, allow for 24 students. If all of the classes at an elementary school have hit those numbers, he said, as a last resort the district transfers students to a different school, which is usually farther from their homes.

“We just flat don’t do that,” Woods said of exceeding the 24-student limit, “Our classrooms aren’t built to hold that number of students.”

His district, the state’s fourth largest, eliminated 973 positions this school year. Woods said that many of those were support positions — staff members who helped teachers reach children who need extra attention or who struggle with language difficulties.

“Students struggling at 22-1 who are now sitting in a class of 23, that’s not a dramatic difference,” he said. “But the person that was there last year to help them with their math and help them with their reading who may not be there now, there is a dramatic impact for that child.”

About 90 minutes north on Interstate 35, Leander ISD has designed classrooms in its newer buildings to handle larger classes in anticipation of rapid growth — they are shaped like an L to create strategic pockets of space for small group work and to reduce potential distractions.

Faubion Elementary was not built for such growth. Many of the rooms in the school, which was converted to its current form from an open-classroom concept building, are small and windowless.

Patti Mosser, who teaches at Faubion, has 24 students in her third-grade class, six more than she had last school year. As her students filed in one Friday after recess, they pushed the desks — which are carefully arranged in the one configuration Mosser has found that they all fit — to clear space on the carpet in the center of the room. With Mosser and a student teacher, there was barely enough room for all to sit cross-legged for their weekly class meeting.

“It is what it is,” she said. “We just have to do a lot of creative grouping.”

Things have improved since the beginning of the year, Mosser said, when she felt like she was “being pulled in all directions from nurse to counselor to referee.” With almost 28 years of teaching experience, she knew to establish firm expectations about behavior and classroom procedures from the start, and her students have become more self-sufficient. However, if she were a first-year teacher, she said, her perspective would be different. Still, her students did not seem to notice the crowded classroom. In fact, when her class recently added its 24th student, she said, they were excited to have a new face.

Causey also said she thought many of her students were doing fine with the extra bodies in the classroom. But she worried about the children for whom school is a “safe place” — the only place where an adult listens to them, where they get warm meals and feel secure.

“If you get a lot of children like that in the classroom, it’s really going to hurt them because you can’t spend as much time with them as they need,” she said. “It will change the way instruction looks.”

Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate in Washington, D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune's staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a bachelor's degree in English from Wellesley College.
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