City schools system considers larger classes, new schedules

Critics fear cost-cutting may abandon reforms in attempt to meet deficit

January 13, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Despite promises to try to shield classrooms and students from budget cuts, Baltimore's school leaders are considering increasing class sizes and revamping the daily schedules of middle and high school students next year.

Both proposals - among at least a dozen being considered to reduce a deficit projected to be in the tens of millions of dollars next year - would save money by reducing the number of classroom teachers.

The school district is grappling with a projected $31 million deficit this year, and so far, school officials have tried to trim that with cuts that largely do not affect classrooms.

The cost-cutting ideas for next year were floated for the first time last week and appear to have received little close analysis by school system staff members. But critics are concerned the system is backing away from reforms, including some that have helped the city schools raise their elementary school test scores significantly in the past five years.

At a hearing before legislators in Annapolis on Thursday, Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo presented one proposal as a question.

"Do we want to look at adding two more children per classroom and saving some teaching positions?" Russo said to lawmakers. "What kind of impact would that have on our educational outcomes?"

The other cost-saving proposal, which would modify the school day in middle and high schools, was raised by school officials at a public hearing last week.

Reducing class size was one of the first actions school board members took in 1997 as part of a five-year plan to help improve city schools. More teachers were added in the elementary grades initially, but this school year, Russo had promised to cut class size in middle and high schools.

On average, first- and second-graders are supposed to have classes of 18 pupils, while third, fourth and fifth grades have 24 pupils in each classroom.

"I am strictly opposed" to increasing class size, said Larry Gaines, chairman of the Parent Community Advisory Board. "You have a lot of children with a lot of problems, and classroom management is a real problem."

Gaines said before the board takes action, it needs to consult with teachers.

It isn't clear whether the board supports either proposal. School board member Sam Stringfield said, "Almost everything has to be regarded as on the table right now, but one of the last things I would vote for is an increase in the class size in the primary grades."

School officials have said the current fiscal year's deficit could balloon to $31 million if left unchecked, and the district's proposals to handle the financial crisis largely steer clear of directly affecting students. But it is not clear how much will have to be trimmed next year and Christopher Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, believes the board may have no choice but to affect the classroom.

"I think what you're generally seeing is that the school system is having to retreat on a lot of promises they made," Maher said, such as summer school classes for all struggling students and reducing class size to more manageable teacher-student ratios.

"In reality, they could not afford to do those things."

The proposal affecting middle and high schools would reduce the number of subjects most students take during an academic year. Students now attend four 90-minute periods a day each semester and complete a subject in about half a year. The approach allows students to take eight subjects over the course of an academic year.

School officials are considering returning to the secondary school day that it had traditionally used - six 45-minute periods, with students taking the same six subjects from September through June.

Because students would take fewer courses, the change means that fewer teachers would be needed and save an estimated $7 million, said Cassandra Jones, the system's chief academic officer.

The school board is expected to consider the issue in the next several weeks, perhaps as early as its Jan. 24 meeting.

Although the proposal would allow the system to save money, some principals are concerned that it would eliminate the flexibility students have to take additional classes.

"I have great concerns about the change," said City College Principal Joseph Wilson. "We would probably not be able to continue our [International Baccalaureate] program, our nationally known chorus and regionally known band."

City College uses a hybrid version of the four-period schedule that allows students to take a variety of enrichment class as well as the IB program.

James Scofield, principal of Northwestern High School, is also concerned about proposed changes. At Northwestern, the four-period day has allowed the school to offer freshmen remedial help and has given students flexibility to accelerate their academic programs.

In the six-period system, students would concentrate on a subject longer and presumably have more opportunity to master a subject, but would earn fewer credits.

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