go to your local Board meetings about budget cuts

image from steve garfield @ flickr.com

When I taught at the Upper School at Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana in the 1990’s, I had it so good, I didn’t even know how good I had it. Anything I ever asked for, I received. If I needed a stapler, I got one. Tape dispenser? Of course. I had pencils and pens and a clock for my room. Hell, I even wrastled up a rug!

The largest class I ever taught at MPCDS had 18 students in it. Eighteen! I was able to individualize assignments for accelerated students and there was time during free periods and after school to help students who needed help. I also really got to know my students on a personal level. In fact, I am still in touch with many of them twenty years later.

The low student/teacher ratio allowed us not only to move through the material quickly, it allowed us to go deep. We had time to do creative projects: enhance the curriculum with art and music. Students had time to work on their writing and compose multiple drafts of a single essay. They worked very hard, and – with 18 students – it was obvious when they hadn’t read or prepared as discussion would simply stop. With 18 students in a classroom, by and large, everyone participated.

When I moved to New York State and started teaching at a local community college, the maximum class size for an English Composition 101 class was set at 24. Last semester, I was surprised to see 27 student names on my roster.

Now that may not seem like a big deal.

You might wonder, “What impact could an extra 3 students possibly have in the classroom climate and culture?”

Let’s just say for each student a teacher gains, that’s another paper to grade, another student who needs makeup work if he or she is absent, another e-mail to answer. If a teacher has 5 sections, adding 3 extra students per section is 15 additional students, which – in my old private school – was an actual class section! And those numbers can get overwhelming very quickly.

I find having more students makes it harder just to remember people’s names. There are more opportunities for students to “hide” in the back row and zone out. In a typical class period, not everyone speaks. I have had to change my methods to make sure that everyone is focused on my material, that they are even awake! Because my sections meet every other day, there are fewer opportunities for discussion. I don’t always have as great a grasp on who has written which paper. As students withdraw from my courses, I feel an embarrassing sense of relief. And let me be clear, this relief is not because I don’t like the students. That is not it at all. The reality is that it leaves me more space in my brain to focus on the students who remain, to help the people who get their work done and who want to be there to succeed.

In a recent article published in Education News, Sam Dillon wrote:

Over the past two years, California, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Wisconsin have loosened legal restrictions on class size. And Idaho and Texas are debating whether to fit more students in classrooms.

Los Angeles has increased the average size of its ninth-grade English and math classes to 34 from 20. Eleventh and 12th-grade classes in those two subjects have risen, on average, to 43 students.

“Because many states are facing serious budget gaps, we’ll see more increases this fall,” said Marguerite Roza, a University of Washington professor who has studied the recession’s impact on schools.

The increases are reversing a trend toward smaller classes that stretches back decades. Since the 1980s, teachers and many other educators have embraced research finding that smaller classes foster higher achievement.

image from photosteve @ flickr.com

Recently, Andrew Cuomo  made some drastic cuts to New York States Education Budget that has administrators quietly wringing their hands.

And for the first time in my life, I plan to attend a Budget meeting for my local school district, set for March 14, 2011. Why? It is my understanding that in my district no one attends these meetings, and I’d like to understand the process by which these cuts will be made. What exactly will be cut?

Music and art are generally considered extras. I will try to make sure that doesn’t happen. But if saving those courses means my son’s core class sizes will need to balloon to 34 students… well, that’s a tough choice.

There are about to be drastic cuts in every public school across the country, and if you care about the future of your children’s education, I implore you to make the time to attend these Board meetings about the budget. Everyone always complains after the cuts have been made. Be part of the process and try to help the Board with their decision-making. Or at least bear witness to the process.

It really is our civic duty.

Think of it like voting. You know how people always say if you don’t vote in the Presidential elections, you have absolutely no right to complain because you opted out of the process. Well, I agree. And as the band Rush so aptly sang back in the 1980’s: “If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice.”

I am planning to go to this budget meeting to find out what we, the general public, might be able to do to prevent these cuts. I want to ask the Board how much money we might need to raise to save certain programs. Because maybe as a community, we can raise some money.

Maybe I am optimistic.

Maybe I am delusional.

Hell, I’ve been called worse.

But I do believe that I live in the kind of school district where parents are willing to help.

And I can be the girl who asks.

In the past, I’ve found chocolate and wine can get people to do almost anything.

(But seriously, anyone wanna come with? I’m a little nervous… more about getting lost on the way to the meeting than anything else.)

Do you think class size matters when it comes to education?

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