Budget cuts offer little relief for larger class sizes

By Sean Hoey/ Eagle Post News Editor

Class size at Monona Grove has significantly increased from last year, according to a report the district office released in October.

The report showed the high school class size  jumped from three to 21 classes with 30 or more students this year. Large classes include precalculus, AP Calculus AB, AP Psychology, and advanced English classes.

The increases come after the school district was forced with significant cuts while shaping the 2011-2012 school year budget.

Growths this year are part of a recent trend at Monona Grove, where class sizes have been slightly increasing over the past few years. Historically, Monona Grove has been a school with relatively lower class sizes.

“When we had more resources about four years ago, we wouldn’t run any classes over 24,” said Dr. Paul Brost, Monona Grove principal.

However, as the school budget has shrunk because of loss in state aid, Monona Grove has had to forgo extra staff.  Staffing decreases are not being evenly matched by the student population, so class sizes are increasing.

Large class size poses new challenges to student learning. Students have noted classroom overcrowding and noise are big concerns.

Sophomore McKenna Crossen said classes, like her chemistry class, “are packed.” Overcrowded science classes could create dangerous situations as students handle harmful chemicals in labs designed for smaller classes.

In addition, teachers are worried about student attention in large classes.

Ms. Sarah Stangland, math teacher, said that when classes are so large, she isn’t always able to give individuals the attention they need. Now, she relies on students  to learn from each other in groups. And because she can’t afford so much individual attention in class, more students are coming outside of class time for support.

“It’s like my first year of teaching all over again,” Ms. Stangland said about the new challenges large classes pose to teachers.

Not only are teachers worried about helping students, but they are also worried about the curriculum large class size affords.

Ms. Kate Ziegelmaier, a social studies teacher, has seen four of her five classes increase to 30 or more students. She explained that writing-intensive classes require large amounts of grading time. As those classes increase, teachers assign  projects that are less time-consuming to grade.

Ms. Stangland said it’s a “sickening feeling,” knowing that students are receiving a less beneficial education.

There is no easy solution to the class-size issue. For example, to decrease the 21 classes over 30 students at the high school, the administration would have to hire 2 FTEs, the equivalent of two full-time teachers. However, last year, the administration had to cut 2.5 FTEs. Essentially,  in order to ensure class sizes under 30, the school would have to hire back all the help it had to cut last year.

Some have suggested making more evenly-distributed class sizes. The problem with this is that the schedule at Monona Grove is student-driven, and, for example, if the administration cuts an art class, those students, whose true love is art, would be forced to take another class he or she may not be interested in taking. That is something the administration does not want to do. And even though those classes are smaller than most, they are larger than in the past.

Others have suggested increasing teacher class load from five to six classes a semester. However, this would lower curriculum rigor by increasing teacher grading load. It would also decrease the time teachers have to give students extra help and communicate with parents.

The only other option would be to limit the number of courses students may take in a semester. This would force students to take a certain number of study halls, which isn’t necessary for Monona Grove students, who generally take few study halls.

Limiting course load would also put students at a great disadvantage in the college application process, where colleges look for full schedules of academically challenging courses from prospective students.

Next year, with substantial reductions in state aid and tax caps for school districts, the outlook of class size at Monona Grove is not good.

“I’m very concerned about [class size]. It’s very problematic,” Dr. Brost said.

The preliminary 2012-2013 school budget suggests that the school will have to cut nearly twice as much as it did last year. Some items in the budget that could be reduced, but according to Dr. Brost, 90 percent of the school budget is people. In other words, the only way to reduce large amounts of money within the school budget is by laying off more staff.

“I’m anticipating very difficult decisions next year,” Dr. Brost said. “To be honest, I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”

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