Sacramento City Unified School District plans to slash class sizes in kindergarten through third grade next fall to an average of 24 students, reversing recession-era cuts that boosted the number of children in many classrooms to 30 or more.
Classes in the district now average 29 students at schools with high numbers of low-income students. At other schools, the average can be as high as 32.
Expected to cost about $7.5 million a year for salaries and benefits, the decision brings the district in line with a new state formula that gives districts more money if they reduce their class sizes by 2020. Sacramento City Unified plans to add 75 teachers at 47 schools.
“Aside from it being the right thing to do, it’s really following through on what the state has set as a requirement,” Superintendent Jose Banda said. “It’s really what we believe in. We believe that smaller class sizes are better for kids and better for teachers. That’s the bottom line.”
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Patricia Gentle, whose two children attend H.W. Harkness Elementary in south Sacramento, said her daughter’s kindergarten class has 29 students. “That’s a lot of 5-year-olds,” she said.
“The lower class size will give the teacher more time to spend on each individual,” said Gentle, who works elsewhere in the district as a teaching assistant. “They should have done it along time ago.”
I made a proposal to the district to accelerate class-size reductions this year, and they rejected it. So we’re very pleased that they decided to do it next year.
Nikki Milevsky, president of Sacramento City Teachers Association
Some large school districts in the Sacramento area already have reduced class sizes. Elk Grove Unified School District, for instance, has reached the state’s 2020 target for grades K-3. Davis Joint Unified School District has 24- or 25-student averages at its schools and will be fully compliant by next fall.
All K-3 grades in Rancho Cordova have met the 24-student threshold in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District. Folsom schools are on track to do so, district spokesman Daniel Thigpen said.
San Juan Unified School District is phasing in smaller class sizes over the next few years, to 27 next fall for second grade, for example, and reaching that level for third grade in fall 2017.
It’s not the first time that schools have slashed class sizes. In the early 1990s, class sizes of 30-plus kids were common in lower grades. Then the state spent billions of dollars to help districts cut K-3 class sizes to 20. The move was wildly popular with both parents and teachers.
A state-funded four-year study at the time of the shift showed that students in smaller classes scored two to three percentage points higher on average than those in large classes. Teachers in the small classes also spent less time on discipline and more time working one-on-one with students.
But the study also found that more than a quarter of schools studied took space away from special education, child care, music and arts programs, and computer labs. And more than a fifth had converted library space to classrooms.
When the recession arrived in 2008, it hammered state and school district budgets – and the pendulum swung the other way. Districts laid off teachers and raised class sizes with the blessing of the Legislature.
In 2013, with the state budget on the mend, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders struck a deal to boost school funding and encourage districts to lower class sizes again.
Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified, said some campuses will add portable classrooms next year to accommodate the new classes. Some existing programs may also be relocated on campus. “But we’re not going to sacrifice any programs to make space,” he said.
Nikki Milevsky, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, said her group has long advocated smaller class sizes. “I made a proposal to the district to accelerate class-size reductions this year, and they rejected it,” she said. “So we’re very pleased that they decided to do it next year.”
Ross said the district had wanted to reduce the class sizes a year ago, in line with the priority that parents and community members placed on the issue during public meetings on spending.
“There was a strong desire to have done this a year ago,” Ross said. “But after 10 years of decimating cuts as a result of the recession, when we had critical cuts in nurses, counselors, psychologists and assistant principals, we were plugging a lot of holes that were damaging for the educational experience.
“So now, having stopped the bleeding for some of those areas, we’re able to invest in another key priority area.”
Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs for Public Advocates, a civil rights and legal organization, said the reduction needs to be a starting point.
“I’m glad Sacramento City is doing that. I’m surprised it didn’t do it sooner,” Guillen said. She urged parents to make sure the reductions are carried out in their children’s classrooms.
Guillen added that the district ought to reduce class sizes in other grades in the district by using some of the extra state funding it receives for having a high concentration of English learners, low-income students and foster children.
The lower class size will give the teacher more time to spend on each individual. They should have done it along time ago.
Patricia Gentle, parent
Banda, in Chicago to attend a superintendents’ roundtable on social and emotional learning, said the district does have smaller class sizes on its radar for grades four through eight.
Parents and community members “put a high priority on the class-size reduction for grades K-8,” Banda said. He said he wanted to “make sure we follow through on prioritization that we’ve set for ourselves and what our parents and community have told us they’d like to see as a way for us to best serve our students.”