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Budget cuts bring larger class sizes

A summer of budget cuts has pushed class sizes in many Massachusetts public schools to their highest levels in a decade, leaving some students competing with as many as 30 classmates for their teachers' attention.

After years of progress keeping class sizes down, high schools from Arlington to Wareham have some classrooms packed with 30 or more students, the result of teaching staffs trimmed by layoffs. In elementary schools, where research shows that classes of 18 students or fewer do better academically, a growing number of teachers face as many as 28 pupils each day.

State education officials do not track increases in class size, so it is not known how many districts face more crowded classrooms this year. But a week after most schools opened, the impact is becoming clear to many students, teachers, and principals.

Some complain that basic tasks like recording attendance take much longer than last year, eating up valuable instruction time. While teachers say they try to stay in motion, crisscrossing classrooms to give individual attention to every child, some students say it has become more difficult to get the help they need.

"When you're taking attendance, it takes forever. Sometimes, after a couple of minutes in class, you haven't done anything because it takes so long," said Nowaf Al-Saidy, a senior at Revere High School, sitting in an economics class with 30 other teens yesterday morning. One algebra class at the school has 40 pupils. "Students just try to deal with it," he said.

After the Education Reform Act of 1993 pumped billions of dollars into the state's 1,900 public schools, many districts added teachers to reduce class sizes, an effort popular with politicians and parents. Massachusetts also had been earmarking $18 million a year to shrink classes in primary grades.

But the state is no longer funding class-size reduction efforts, because of the commonwealth's $3 billion budget shortfall. In addition, cuts in state aid to cities and towns left many districts laying off teachers or closing schools. As a result, remaining classes grew.

Tomorrow, students in the Coalition for Asian Pacific American Youth will make education budget cuts and crowded classes the focus of an afternoon protest rally on Boston Common.

"When you take that much out of the curriculum and add increased class sizes, the youngster of 2004 is not going to be as richly educated as the youngster of 2003," said Stephen Woodcock, principal of Arlington High School, which has six classes of 30-plus students, up from one class last year.

Yesterday the Council for Fair School Finance held a news conference to highlight the issue in front of the A.C. Whelan School in Revere, where the average class size has risen to 25 this year, up from 20 last year.

The council supports a lawsuit alleging the state has not upheld its constitutional duty to fund public schools adequately. Lawyers have presented evidence in Suffolk Superior Court that poor urban districts face larger class sizes than wealthy suburban districts.

The lawyers also have presented testimony that class sizes of 17 or 18 are ideal for primary grades and that having more than 22 pupils in a room can slow student achievement. This year's class-size increases likely will come up in court, said Norma Shapiro, the council's president.

"If the state is going to require children to perform to a particular level, why doesn't the state have to provide children with what's necessary?" Shapiro asked.

Some officials say small classes are not the only way to improve achievement. "Whether the quality of learning is improved [in smaller classes] is based on many other factors. Unless you have all the factors right, reducing class sizes often masks some of the underlying problems," Board of Education chairman James A. Peyser said.

Still, Revere's superintendent of schools, Paul Dakin, fears bigger classes will slow the city's recent gains in MCAS test scores. Larger classes worry Tracy D'Elia, who has two daughters at the Whelan School, including one class with 28 second-graders.

"With smaller classes, there's more one-on-one-type of action between teachers and students. I can't see any one-on-one now," D'Elia said. "Your child's going to fall through the cracks."

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