Large Numbers Strain ACPS Classrooms, Teachers

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Even as enrollment numbers continue to firm up about five weeks into the school year, city school leaders also have to balance the residual effects of more students, more class sections and limited staff, particularly in the new middle schools.

In his report at last Thursdays meeting of the Alexandria School Board, Superintendent Morton Sherman addressed concerns among middle school stakeholders and board members that some classes had become uncomfortably large.

According to statistics Sherman presented, average class sizes at the middle schools are 19 students per language arts course, 17 per math and 20 per social studies and science. The average physical education class has 25 students.

However, beneath those numbers lie a notable disparity between highs and lows, including large concentrations of special needs students students learning English as a second language and students with disabilities in some instances.

The recent restructuring of the middle schools has left students and teachers in an untenable situation, said Vickie Cattaneo, co-chair of the Special Education Advisory Committee.

Cattaneo, speaking on behalf of SEAC, was distraught over the potentially negative effects that could result from middle school class sizes ranging as high as 28 in math, 29 in social studies and 36 in physical education.

Historically, Alexandria City Public Schools have endeavored to keep classes smaller than most surrounding districts. But recent financial hardship has forced leaders to milk existing resources even while enrollment has increased beyond projections up 4.1 percent from last year, according to the most recent statistics.

We now have classes with 30 students or more, a situation we have not had in ACPS in a very long time, Cattaneo said. In many of these classrooms are special education students that exceed 50 percent of the class population and yet there are no co-teachers.

Indeed, some middle school classrooms have 12 to 14 special education students, according to Sherman.

There are a number of those sections and we know exactly which ones they are, and thats the rationale for request for more staffing, he said.

To rectify the situation, Sherman said last week that he authorized the hiring of three additional special education teachers at the middle school level.

Cattaneo wondered aloud if the move to divide two middle schools into five smaller ones may have been too hasty for a school system strapped for space and resources.

Could it be that three months was simply not enough time to analyze the effects this restructuring might have? she asked.

First-term Board member Mimi Carter empathized with the teachers forced to handle the large sections this year: I taught a photography club last year that had 22 third-graders and it almost killed me, so Im just wondering, whats our plan for these large class sizes?

Throughout last week, school staff worked to rebalance the class rosters as best they could, noting the many layers that go into scheduling school days for each of the 2,000-plus middle school students. Officials expected numbers to level off by Wednesday after rearranging students where possible.

Across the middle schools, there are probably eight or nine sections where I can understand parents are concerned at the situation and class sizes need to come down, said Margee Walsh, executive director of secondary programs, adding that the schools waited until now in order to complete the first round of grading.

Were not staffed at a level to keep those class sizes large, so you should begin to see those come down, she said.

Sheryl Gorsuch, vice-chair of the School Board, was concerned about maintaining staffing and class sizes into the next budget cycle, something the superintendent could not yet answer with certainty.

To be very candid, the answer, we hope, would be that we could at least continue the level of staffing we have this year, but it depends where the budget goes, Sherman said. If were asked to have another 2 to 3 percent reduction of our budget, Im going to be very hard-pressed to deliver that to you.

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