BERKELEY -- With the best budget prospects in years, East Bay school districts are finally taking a look at reducing their bloated class sizes after five years of brutal cuts.
Less money forced school districts to cut staff so class sizes grew and individual students got less attention, school officials say. Now with new funding-based incentives coming from Sacramento, districts are budgeting for more teachers, which they hope will bring down class sizes and improve the education of area children.
The largest class sizes to be found in the region are in Union City where schools had an average of 34 students per class districtwide for the 2011-12 school year, the latest numbers available from the California Department of Education. School officials there estimate that high school classes in Union City this year will average 37 students.
"I don't think it's going to get any worse than this," said Derek McNamara, chief personnel officer at the New Haven Unified School that serves Union City. "Our highest funding priority is to lower class size, but we have to budget for that. A large class size is not a good thing."
On the lower end of class sizes are schools in Berkeley, Oakland and Piedmont, which all average 24 students per class. California's average also is 24.
Districts with high class sizes will now be able to take advantage of a new state education funding formula offering economic incentives to lower class sizes to 24 students over several years in kindergarten through third grade.
The new funding formula backs up decades of research showing a direct connection between lower class sizes and better education, especially kids in kindergarten through the third grade, and it benefits minority kids the most.
McNamara estimated that to lower average class size districtwide by one student, say from 30 to 29, it would cost $1 million a year in new teacher pay, but that's not likely to happen soon. The district probably will focus on lowering class sizes in kindergarten through the third grade where it matters most.
In the Fremont Unified School District, which had the second highest average numbers in the area at 29 for the 2011-12 school year, administrators are well aware that lowering class sizes will be good for their students.
"Class size does matter as long as the smaller class sizes have targeted and focused instruction and intervention for students falling behind," said Fremont Superintendent Jim Morris. "If you get it down to 15, it's really great. Over that you have to make sure you're making the best use of your time, so you really are targeting the kids who need your help. And parents have this intuitive sense that smaller class sizes are better."
For parents like Katherine Campbell, who moved from Connecticut to the East Bay this year with her husband and three kids who are going into third, sixth and eighth grades, class size was one of the major factors in deciding where they would make their home.
Campbell, an elementary schoolteacher and reading specialist, ended up in Piedmont, a district with one of the lowest average class sizes around.
"It was challenging, especially since my kids have grown up in class sizes of 15 to 20," Campbell said. "There is a lot of research out there that supports small class sizes."
A landmark 1980s study of class sizes comparing students in kindergarten through third grade in class sizes of 13 to 17 with those in class sizes of 22 to 25 in Tennessee showed a connection between lower class sizes and better education, and it ¿concluded increases in learning were about double for minority students in smaller classes.
Examined closer, smaller class sizes result in more time with the teacher for each student.
"A good reading group in kindergarten through third grade with five students in a class size of 20 would meet with a teacher for a half-hour every other day," Campbell said. "If you have 30 kids in a class, that group would meet once or twice a week, if you're lucky."
Tim Erwin, assistant superintendent of the Newark Unified School District, which had an average class size of 28 in 2011-12 and is expecting 29 this year, said his district is looking at lowering class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to qualify for extra funding. To get from an average of 27 to 26 students in kindergarten through third grade will mean hiring three new teachers at an estimated $80,000 each with benefits.
"Prior to the big budget mess of 2008 and 2009, it was common to find K-3 class sizes at 20," Erwin said. "Over the next eight years, the state wants us to bring class size back to 24 for K-3. We have to reduce class size by 11 percent to qualify for the funding."
Instead of cutting budgets and laying off teachers, districts are now looking at hiring more teachers and budgeting for a bit more money.
"There will be extra staff for us to hire," New Haven Superintendent McNamara said. "For many of the districts in Alameda County, most have 80 to 95 percent of their costs in people. We cut the low hanging fruit in programs, then we cut people. We hope in the next few years to add people back."
Contact Doug Oakley at 510-843-1408. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley.