This gap between policy and reality has drawn strong concern from parents in the community, some of whom feel that the district's efforts to address it so far have fallen short. They point to targets for average class sizes that the district has approved and should be adhering to. The targets come from a variety of sources adopted over time — teachers' union contracts, tax measure promises and state law funding requirements.
Larger-than-ideal classes in the Palo Alto Unified School District, particularly at the middle and high schools, was raised as a concern by two parents who penned an opinion piece in this newspaper that showed the district was not meeting its own target averages.
Class size also became a focal point in the school board's budget discussions last spring and, driven by one board member, a particular point of contention when weighed against the cost of significant teacher raises. This comparison is sure to return to the dais this month, when the board will have to make difficult budget decisions to address a sudden $3.7 million budget deficit due to lower-than-anticipated property-tax revenue.
To Chris Kolar, the district's director of research and assessment, the issue of class sizes is not a single, monolithic problem to solve but rather multiple challenges: from physical overcrowding and enrollment planning to connections between students and teachers and students' social-emotional well-being. Thus, it also does not have a single solution, he said.
"I think that the class-size conversation needs to start by focusing on what the outcomes are that we're trying to consider," he said.
"If we want to focus in the secondary level on SEL (social emotional learning) — and not just the teacher relationships, but things like bullying — then one of the questions that we need to ask is how many kids are jammed into a room ... and is it conducive for development of functional relationships and meaningful connections?"
The district looks to average student-teacher ratios in the teachers' union contract as its targets, which is appropriate within the context of teacher workload, but not as informative for a parent concerned about a child getting lost in a large class or gauging the impact of class size on the ability of students and teachers to connect with one another, Kolar said. The district uses the contract ratios, along with variables like enrollment, average number of classes per student and classes taught per teacher, to calculate the number of full-time teachers to allocate to each school every year, district staff said.
School administrators are guided by the contract averages, but also must consider "competing demands," like the number of students that request a particular class, and values, like creating the middle schools' team system where groups of students move through core classes together.
Palo Alto's current target class-size averages have existed in the teacher's contract since the 2012-13 school year. The last time the district and union officially opened class size as a topic during negotiations was the 2011-12 school year, according to Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers,
Previously, according to the 2011-12 union contract, elementary-school classes were supposed to have an average of 20 students; core middle school English, math, history/social studies and science classes, 24 students; freshman-year English and math classes, 20 students (in alignment with California Education Code at the time); sophomore year English classes, 24 students; and all other middle and high school classes, 28.5 students. The staffing ratios for grades 4-5, for the core at grade 6, for English and math at grades 7 and 8 and for English at grade 10 were "contingent," the contract stated, upon continuation of a parcel tax Palo Alto voters passed in 2005 to preserve small classes and prevent significant teacher layoffs.
This followed the first-ever parcel tax passed in 2001 to reduce class sizes. In 2001, the ratio for ninth-grade math and English classes went to 20 to 1, and 10th-grade English went to 24 to 1, according to Bowers.
Voters approved increased parcel taxes again in 2010 and 2015 to continue the original aim of the tax — to keep class sizes down.
The secondary level's broader 28.5 average has long existed, since 1980, Bowers told the Weekly. Before that, it was 27.5, and also came from the teachers' contract, he said.
A new state funding formula signed into law in 2013 that gives school districts dollars if they can maintain the average class size for kindergarten through third grade at 24 students at all of their schools also impacted Palo Alto Unified's ratios. It had the biggest impact on the elementary schools, but also resulted in new ratios for ninth-grade English and math and 10th-grade English, Bowers said. Currently, freshman-year English and math classes should have 24 students and sophomore-year English classes, 26 students.
A board policy on class size, adopted from a California State Board Association (CSBA) template, states that at the secondary level, district priorities for class size reduction should focus on English, math science, social studies, world language and other courses that are necessary to meet graduation requirements.
Remediation measures are also spelled out in the teachers' contract in case classes grow beyond the approved levels. Principals and staff are to explore and "mutually discuss" methods for remediation, from providing additional aide time or classroom support to transferring students to hiring additional teachers. The principal makes the final decision, and then presents that plan to the district.
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said that the teacher's union tried to negotiate lower class sizes and/or total caseload caps for the middle and high school several years ago, but they weren't agreed to by the district and school board.
"We realize capping class size is more difficult and complicated at those levels because of the fact that you only have so many sections of classes and such, but we would be happy to discuss this in negotiations in the future to try to get class sizes down," she wrote in an email to the Weekly. "We want what is best for students, and we know smaller classes and therefore more individual attention, is what is better for students."
The use of averages in measuring class size can be misleading, both parents and school officials agree.
Averages don't accurately capture what's going on at a more granular level. The two middle-school parents who penned the guest opinion in May pointed out that very small classes — some with as few as eight students and which might be non-instructional or special sections — are averaged in with larger classes, producing an average that cloaks the true scope of the issue.
District officials do acknowledge that a problem exists, and Superintendent Max McGee has suggested that there should be additional metrics beyond averages, which he wrote in a May memo can be "misleading."
McGee has committed to now providing ranges — the smallest and largest class sizes — at individual course levels to provide more context. He provided tables with that information in his memo, and plans to also release it in the fall with an annual enrollment report.
There is also no metric documenting classes that have low teacher to student ratios but are nonetheless large classes, such as courses that are co-taught (and an increasing number are at the high schools), and smaller classes that have been combined into one. (Gunn High School Principal Denise Herrmann told the Weekly that this happened last year and will again next year at the high school; she works with teachers to combine appropriate, related classes if they have low enrollment.)
District data from the 2015-16 year shows that while the average seventh-grade English class sizes for JLS, Jordan and Terman middle schools are, respectively: 25.8, 26.1 and 27.3, there are classes as small as 20 and as large as 30 at the schools.
At JLS, all subject areas (English, math, science and social studies) have a high of 34; at Jordan, they are all at either 32 or 33; and at Terman, 30 or 31. Yet at Jordan, there is even a math class with as few as eight students.
All subject areas at the middle schools, save math at Jordan, have averages above the stated 24-to-1 ratio, according to the district data. Terman has the lowest averages, but is so short on physical classroom space that hiring additional teachers won't help bring the average down significantly, McGee has said. Still, the school is looking into adding a second teacher into large classes to team teach and lower the ratio, according to McGee.
At Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, English classes fall within their stated averages, but there are several at or above 30 students. Average science class size at Gunn hovers between 27.9 and 30 students, but one class (Biology Honors) had as many as 31 and another (Biology A) as few as 23. At Paly, AP Calculus AB had a high of 34 students this past school year, while a pre-calculus class had a low of 14 students.
At the June 7 board meeting, McGee said that the district would "really like to" have middle and high school classes at 30 or fewer. Core classes like math, English and science classes should be "a lot closer to 28 and 30 than 34, 35," he said.
The district's priority, he said, should be at the middle schools. The district "ran into some problems this year" related to class size, he said, particularly at Jordan, where some large seventh-grade classes (30 and more students) were being taught by first- and second-year teachers, McGee said.
Since the issue was raised this spring, the district has intermittently discussed how to best measure class size and did allocate funding to hire more middle- and high-school teachers, though some board and community members continue to express concern that more needs to be done given expected enrollment growth, particularly at the high schools.
And while some community members have wondered if it's time for the board to consider updating its policy on class sizes to align it with reality, McGee told the board at the retreat that it is staff work to make sure the district is meeting its own size limits. The board's job, he said, is to monitor that work. He committed to publicly releasing highest and lowest class sizes, averages, by class and by subject "and to keeping them, at least with the funds we have available, within our contractual" ratios.
Board Vice President Terry Godfrey said at the June retreat that the issue could potentially return as a policy question if the board decides that the district's historical metric — measuring by average, grade level and certain subject areas — is no longer right for the district.
For Herrmann and other principals, the class-size debate has lacked a full understanding of the many moving parts that impact a school's master schedule, some of which are within the school's control and others, aren't: the number of students that request a particular class, the number of sections the school can accommodate based on space and staffing, students moving in or out of a school, projected enrollment and different funding sources.
"That's the best way to describe making a master schedule: It's about managing competing demands," said Sharon Ofek, former principal of JLS Middle School.
"I think that if parents want to see data, and the board wants to see data represented a certain way, then that needs to be made clear and then they need to ask us professionals to provide it that way," Herrmann said. "What is the information and the data that's needed for the public to trust and for the board to make informed decisions?"
To Kolar, until the class-size debate is couched in specific problems and outcomes, it will continue to frustrate both the district and community members.
"I always like to step back and ask, what is the problem that we're trying to solve? A lot of different people may identify the problem in a different way. As a result, working on a solution to one problem doesn't look like you're working on the solution to somebody else's important problem."
This story contains 2061 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.