49 kids in a high school class? Duluth class sizes reach largest in teachers’ memories

/ 7 October 2012 / eunice

Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune, October 7, 2012 – A few of the 49 students in Joe Vukelich’s senior American government class at Denfeld High School don’t even fight for one of the 35 desks anymore; they have grown used to sitting on the floor, a windowsill, a lawn chair or at a table against the wall.

“Some students call the windowsill,” Vukelich said. “Or there are open seats, and they say, ‘I’m on the floor here. I have my place.’”

Seating in jam-packed classrooms is one of the many challenges Vukelich and other teachers — along with administrators and students — face in Duluth schools in what longtime teachers say is the year with the largest class sizes in district history.

Music and gym classes go higher than Vukelich’s 49 in his 900-square-foot classroom; but several other core curriculum classes at Denfeld, East High School and Ordean East Middle School are in the upper 40s.

Advanced eighth-grade math classes at Ordean East top out at 46 and 47 students. Can classes go any higher at the middle school?

“From my perspective, 47 is a breaking point,” said Ordean East Principal Gina Kleive. “This is as high as we can go.”

Why so high?

For 20 years or more, the district has dealt with flat or nearly flat aid from the state despite rising costs, adjusting dollars for inflation, said Superintendent Bill Gronseth. The district has worked consistently to keep cuts out of classrooms, he said.

On top of that, the state in recent years has held back money owed school districts for months at a time, forcing them to borrow and eat into reserves. Some communities have responded by increasing operating levies.

“There are communities that have triple the levy Duluth has,” Gronseth said. “For them, class size isn’t as big of an issue.”

Duluth’s operating levy is $366 per pupil and is set to expire in 2014. The School Board chose not to ask voters for more classroom money this year, opting instead to talk to the community about what it wants from its schools. Last fall, voters soundly defeated a three-tiered levy request.

When cuts are made each year, class sizes usually increase to save things such as music programs, advanced academic offerings, after-school programs and athletics, said Frank Wanner, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers.

“We don’t want to say, ‘No orchestra, no hockey, no College in the Schools.’ We need to maintain all of this,” he said. “But fewer resources translate into fewer teachers and higher class sizes.”

Teachers’ challenges

Laurie Severson’s eighth-grade Earth science class at Ordean East was conducting a mass, volume and density lab Monday. Her 46 students worked with partners, sharing scales and rulers, as she moved about the room speaking to them through her Smart Board’s amplification system.

“I use it every single day,” she said. “If I didn’t have that little amplifier, there would be a voice concern.”

Severson had to find more equipment for her class this year, which also takes more time to set up and take down for the hands-on work required of a science class. At her students’ age, she said, there are often little fires to put out, and the students recognize there are more of them and only one of her.

Altogether, she has more than 200 students throughout her day.

“When I saw the numbers for this year, I thought, ‘How am I going to do that?’ she said. “If I was a first-year teacher and didn’t have the tools from 46 years of teaching, I’m not sure I could. But I wouldn’t continue to do it if I didn’t enjoy it.”

Lester Park Elementary has both the largest enrollment and the largest class sizes among Duluth elementary schools, said its principal, Bonnie Wolden. Its biggest class is a second-grade section of 34.

“With primary kids who haven’t learned how to learn yet, you’re teaching a lot of behavior,” Wolden said. “When you have that many children, you spend more time on behavior.”

Lester Park is a new school, with classrooms built for 28 desks. Many classrooms have 30 to 34 desks, and they’re crowded, Wolden said.

That makes it hard for teachers to configure their classes into various reading and work groups and teach at different levels.

“This is a wonderful space, and there are so many benefits for us to be here, but class size is a real stressor for teachers,” Wolden said.

For Vukelich, large class sizes means less time developing connections with students.

“There is no way I will be able to give every one of them the time and attention I would have in other years,” said the 1977 Denfeld graduate and 24-year district teaching veteran. “It’s a matter of math. Pretty soon they are like, ‘Who cares?’ and I need them to stay with me. In a class like this, you need that.”

Vukelich worries about the “kids in the middle; somewhat shy,” he said. “Boom. They aren’t talking now. In a smaller class, they are more comfortable. That’s what bothers me the most.”

At East High School, forestry, fisheries and wildlife teacher Jenny Madole’s lab-intensive class heads outside often. Getting through the work with 44 kids is difficult, she said.

“Generally, I would have two sections,” she said, but because of reductions she’s got twice the kids in one semester. And because some of those kids are “at risk,” she said, they need extra help.

Who gets what?

At elementary, middle and high schools, class sizes are affected by grade levels. Class sizes are kept smaller in the lowest grades, and larger numbers go to the highest grades.

Similarly, classes are kept smaller for remedial math and English and reading classes, while advanced classes in those subjects are larger. The district pays for a portion of the teacher’s salary for remedial classes, as well, to offset the school’s budget. This year there are also fewer sections of advanced courses at some schools.

Denfeld Principal Tonya Sconiers said advanced placement calculus has one section of 44 because there isn’t money for another teacher. Students in the higher grades “are more apt after having spent three years in class to be able to navigate a larger class,” Sconiers said.

Kleive said shuffling takes place in the first month of school after testing data is released, so students who need extra math or reading help can get placed in those classes. That means numbers are adjusted. The advanced students are working a grade level above, she said, and many are independent workers.

“But to have support within that advanced instruction is important as well,” she said. “I would still like advanced classes smaller.”

Gronseth said the district is looking to add a few class sections at Ordean East.

At the high school level, which classes get a second or third section depends on how many students sign up, he said. If 75 signed up for a class, they’d add a section. But this year they couldn’t do that for 45 students.

“The other option would be to deny that class for some of those students and force them into taking something else … and we’re trying not to do that,” said Bill Hanson, business services director.

Classroom strategies

Schools and teachers have some new ways of coping. Sconiers created a partnership with a class from the University of Minnesota Duluth. A group of education students just about to embark on student teaching have been assigned to Denfeld’s upper grades to help out in classrooms.

“I’m not sure we would have reached out to UMD had we not had this challenge on our hands,” Sconiers said. The UMD students act as teaching assistants.

Denfeld’s Jill Lofald, who teaches interpersonal communications, drama and speech, relies on the passion and energy she has for her subjects for the classes she teaches, especially for those with 40-plus students.

“Kids feed off of that, and it creates a nice dynamic, whether it’s 20 or 50 kids,” she said. “With 50 kids, there is much more representation, and it should lend itself to more experiences shared, while still generating a safe atmosphere.”

But some students came to her interpersonal communications class, saw the high numbers and didn’t come back, she said.

Vukelich uses two student cadets to help with grading in his class of 49, something he’s never had to do before. Seniors generally are mature enough to keep focused in class, he said. In his biggest classes, he does what he calls proximity control.

“It’s talking and walking,” he said, miming pointing a microphone at students at their desks. “I’ve never had to do that: Be Phil Donahue and walk down the aisles. The more people and bodies you have, the more chances they’ll be distracted. I make sure they are all still with me.”

‘It’s so full, it’s nuts’

East junior Cierra Morris is in the only section of Spanish IV with 40 other students.

“It’s harder to learn because it’s another language, for one,” she said. “But it’s crowded, and a lot of kids raise their hands, and she can’t get to you. There are too many kids.”

The need for more teacher attention was a common theme among East and Denfeld students, along with distractions from late arrivals and students talking in class.

East freshman Anna Karas said her German class holds 40 students. If one person starts talking, she said, everyone starts talking. If you don’t talk loudly enough, bodies “soak up the sound.”

“If teachers ask a question, half the class raises its hand, and it’s unlikely you will get called on because there are so many people,” Karas said. “It’s so full, it’s nuts.”

Denfeld seniors Nicole Wrazidlo and Paige Schuller said it was difficult to get into all of the advanced placement classes they wanted this year, and each had to forgo some choices.

“They are cutting those, and the general classes have three to four of the same class,” Schuller said.

Denfeld senior Cory Bolen takes Vukelich’s American government class. He’s still able to learn in the class, he said, but he sees how it’s easy for some to “slack off” with so many people in a room.

“You can see (inattention) in a class of 30,” he said. “You can’t here.”

For East sophomore Alyssa Everson, she senses her large Algebra II class tends toward a lecture format because of its size.

“It’s nicer (when classes are smaller), because you get to know the teacher and classmates better,” Everson said, “but I don’t feel my learning is being hindered.”

Denfeld freshman Damion Tobolaski said bigger classes heighten students’ anxiety.

Denfeld sophomore Kati Andrews said she has a hard time getting the help she needs in class because of the number of students, “and I can’t stay behind because I don’t have money to get back and forth on buses.”

What next?

Teacher’s union president Wanner has been with the district since 1972, and he said class sizes have never been this big. The complication comes at a time when teachers are facing tougher evaluations for student achievement, he said.

“Teachers are working far later, coming in earlier, eating lunch in their classrooms, not taking breaks,” he said. “It’s not a healthy thing.”

Middle schools, in particular, have run out of things to take away, said Lincoln Park Principal Denise Clairmont. Core academic classes there top out at 40 because money the school receives for its low-income population allowed for hiring more teachers.

The district reduced class periods at the middle schools from seven to six this year.

“That was the last big cut,” Clairmont said.

It can be disheartening for educators to face the classroom size challenge, Sconiers said, but schools still have a responsibility to educate kids.

“We still have to operate and do whatever it takes to help our kids succeed,” she said. “The taxpayers of Duluth have been very generous in support of new facilities, and when it comes time for asking for any more money … I want them to know we are using the money they have given us in the best possible way. Duluth public schools is a good steward. But there comes a time when there needs to be an infusion.”

East teacher Madole is hopeful the School Board decides to hold a levy referendum next year.

“That is the only way we are going to get our class sizes to a manageable level,” she said.