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Detroit Public Schools grapple with crowded classes

This is what you get when you hire a former General Motors executive to be "emergency manager" of a troubled school district.

I hope Professor Cohen, the John Dewey Professor of Education at University of Michigan, didn't really say that a brilliant teacher can do well with 72 kids. . . and then use Einstein of all people as an example. Nobody every accused Einstein of being a good teacher. And I don't care how brilliant a teacher is, 54 kindergartners is worse than nuts; it's abusive. Social services would move in if this were a child care situation.

Worse, saying a brilliant teacher can do the job certainly suggests that teacher skills are the problem, not terribly overcrowded classrooms.

by Jennifer Chambers/ The Detroit News

Detroit ΓΆ€” Every day, Donnie Hodges totes his backpack into Nolan Elementary School and heads for kindergarten class ΓΆ€” searching for his seat among 54 classmates.

The 4-year-old's class is more than double the size it should be under Detroit Public Schools' contract with the teachers' union.

"It's crazy," said Donnie's mother, Crystal Philpoc. "They can't learn very much in that environment."

The Detroit Federation of Teachers says Donnie and numerous other DPS students are in classes with too many children ΓΆ€” in violation of the union's contract ΓΆ€” because of fluctuating enrollment and delayed teacher assignments. The district says it is reorganizing classrooms and teacher placement to bring sizes closer to contractual limits: 25 students for K through third grade; 30 for grades four and five, and 35 for grades 6-12.

DPS officials could not say how many classes exceeded the contractual limits on size last week. Union officials have received several reports of overcrowded classes but are still trying to find out how many schools and students are affected.

"At this point, there remains a very small number of classrooms where ΓΆ€” based on either more students showing up than expected, instances of students returning to DPS from charter or other schools after Count Day, and/or unexpected teacher retirements and resignations ΓΆ€” there is a continued need for staff leveling," DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said.

But the reality at DPS is this: Earlier this month, a science class at Finney High had 72 students, the DFT said.

Without enough chairs or desks for everyone, the teacher took the students to an auditorium, DFT officials said. The class was trimmed to 55 students last week, still well above limits in the teachers' contract.

"It's outrageous. ... I'm sure they don't have 72 books in that classroom," said Mark O'Keefe, a DFT vice president.

Keith Johnson, DFT president, said at Carstens Elementary, four classrooms have 47 to 56 students each. Three classes have up to 38 to 42 students at Gompers Learning Academy, a K-8 building, he said.

To try to get a handle on how widespread the problem is, the teachers union mailed class-size surveys last month to building representatives in the district.

As of Monday, officials said they were waiting for many to complete the forms, which are due this week.
Key factors in class sizes

DFT officials say several factors contribute to excessive class sizes, including fluctuations in enrollment and attendance in the district.

Earlier this month, DPS officials said 70,500 students had enrolled, but on average about 60,500 were showing up.

Preliminary Count Day figures show enrollment is closer to 64,424, but many students will continue to show up later this school year, according to DPS.

Some students are returning to DPS after trying charter schools; others are changing schools among the district's 130 buildings.

"I suspect it's worse here because of how much our students move around. Other districts have a much more stable population. They know how many first-graders they are getting year after year," O'Keefe said.

"Here it really changes. A third of students are in a new school each year. Part of it is parents move around. They live in different rentals. It's also 'school shopping,' charter schools. They all contribute to the problem."

Also complicating class-size fluctuations is teacher staffing. In the spring, DPS issued layoff notices to nearly 4,200 teachers. Almost 3,800 were called back, a figure the DFT has said is not enough.

On Monday, the district ΓΆ€” which is battling a $327 million deficit ΓΆ€” laid off 79 teachers and is expected to lay off eight more by Friday. Wasko said DPS has a fiduciary responsibility to align teacher service with enrollment and attendance.

"At all times leading up to this point and presently, we have staffed conservatively to ensure fiscal responsibility while still meeting all of the academic needs," Wasko said.

The yearly reorganization at DPS to level out classrooms has sometimes gone into November.

"For some reason, the district every year takes forever to move teachers around. At (one) school there are two teachers that are working in the office and waiting for assignments. It's really frustrating. Teachers want to work," O'Keefe said.

No teacher compensation

In the past, DPS had to pay a fine to the teacher if class sizes went over contractual limits.

But when Emergency Manager Roy Roberts imposed a 10 percent pay cut on all district employees in July, he also took away the compensation for oversized classes, O'Keefe said. That change saves the district about $700,000.

The union is suing to block the pay cut and get the oversized class compensation back. Johnson said teachers would rather have proper class sizes than the compensation.

"We don't have a dollar remedy any more. But it's still a contractual violation," O'Keefe said.

Outside Nolan Elementary, as dozens of children left at the end of the day, teacher Paul Mayfield stopped to talk about class sizes. "I teach six classes and all of them have too many kids in them. Thirty-eight-plus kids," he said. "I spend more time disciplining than on instruction."

Said Mayfield of Tyrice Pigler, an eighth-grader, who was standing next to him: "He is a very smart student, but he isn't going to get a chance to perform and show it because there are so many kids."

David K. Cohen, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, said research shows the larger the class, the harder it is for students to get access to the teacher and the harder it is for the teacher to manage the class.

The effects are more pronounced for poor urban students, Cohen said.

"Disadvantaged kids are more sensitive to the school environment than advantaged kids. Typically, their own environment doesn't provide as much support for academic work. They are more likely to benefit from smaller classes," he said.

And the class with 72 kids?

"A brilliant teacher can do well with 72 kids," he said. "But that is like asking every professor of physics to be Einstein."


— Jennifer Chambers
Detroit News





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