Thirty-four students in sixth-grade language arts, 33 in seventh-grade math, 34 in first-year French, 34 in U.S. history, 32 in chemistry, 32 in geometry. Class sizes of a large, underfunded urban district? No, these examples are current classes at middle and high schools in Palo Alto.
It isn't supposed to be this way. District policy is that all secondary school classes are staffed based on a 28.5 average class size. Sixth-grade core classes, and seventh- and eighth-grade math and English classes are supposed to average 24 students, and ninth- and tenth-grade English and math classes are supposed to be even smaller, with 22 students.
These target ratios were set by the school board for carefully considered pedagogical reasons and to ensure every student in every class receives the high quality of instruction offered in this district. They have also been promoted as one of the benefits of the parcel taxes Palo Alto voters have approved.
Those of us who have students at the middle schools and high schools know how rare it is for our students to be in classes as small as these staffing ratios promise. How is it possible that the experience of our teachers and students in the classroom is so different than the published average class sizes and staffing ratios? Our analysis of enrollment data for all middle and high school classes show that the staffing ratios are being calculated in a misleading way or are simply being ignored.
According to the most recent enrollment data obtained from Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), the two high schools together have a total of 1,953 classes listed in the database. But 776 of these classes (40 percent) have eight or fewer students, or are non-instructional classes such as advisory and tutorial. These types of classes are found in every department across both schools. Some of these sections are opportunities for special need or advanced students to receive credit for individualized instruction or independent study or for students receiving class credit for being teaching assistants. And yet, these small sections are averaged in with all the other instructional classes in the department and school to determine staffing ratios.
These very small classes bring down the overall average class sizes to below or near the range of the official target ratios, thus misrepresenting to the community and the school board how large most classes at our high schools really are. The U.S. News & World Report 2016 Academic Indicators report (see tinyurl.com/hsb4lgs) that the student-teacher ratio at both Gunn and Paly is 18:1, but this number is completely erroneous, as the very small or non-instructional classes are included in these published ratios. When the small classes are eliminated, the class size averages increase to 27 at both high schools.
An example of a high school class where staffing ratios are not being met is Gunn's "Communications A," a required core English class for ninth- and tenth-graders. Ninety percent of the students taking Communications A are in classes over the target size of 22 students. In "Geometry A" at Gunn and Paly, every class has more than the targeted size of 22 students. In "Economics 11" at Gunn, 61 percent of students are in classes of more than 28 students, and 41 percent are in classes with over 31 students.
The same problem exists at the three middle schools. In the English and math departments the average class size at each school is larger than the stated target of 24 students.
Last May, our community overwhelmingly approved Measure A, a parcel-tax increase that promised to "preserve excellence in academic programs" and "reduce class size." If our community values reasonably sized classes and these funds were specifically raised to reduce class sizes, why is there a fundamental disconnect between how the district has told our community they are staffing classes and how they are actually being staffed?
It seems that the school board directives for class sizes are being ignored by the district or viewed as merely a suggested class size but not as a requirement for staffing. It shouldn't take a parent to ferret out class-size data and deliver a report directly to the board, to call attention to something as basic and important as core academic class sizes in our middle and high schools. These staffing ratios should be calculated appropriately each spring so that a sufficient number of teachers can be hired. And after school starts, the school board should hold the district accountable by reviewing the actual staffing ratios with the August enrollment report.
The board has an opportunity to act now to improve our student experience. The board can use the available budget surplus to hire additional teachers -- an estimated six teachers across the middle schools and 15-18 teachers across the high schools. These new hires should be in addition to the staffing growth already in the budget based on enrollment growth.
It will require a significant investment to bring the largest classes into a reasonable range and meet the district-stated target ratios. But the investment needs to be in teachers, not in new buildings. Hiring more teachers now is the only way to bring down class size to the promised levels.
We want all our students in PAUSD to thrive. Meeting district-stated class size ratios is the first essential step in ensuring the best possible learning environment for all students.