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How to Lower Class Size Without Lowering Class Size

On Tuesday morning bright and early, I drove to Forest Hills, Queens, and took the E train all the way down to the American Arbitration Association.  I had to go there because Francis Lewis High School has 73 oversized classes.

I’m a new chapter leader, I’d never done this before, and I made some mistakes.  For one thing, I numbered the oversized classes when I was supposed to highlight them.  So James Vasquez, my UFT District Representative, handed me a highlighter and told me to get highlighting.

Oversized classes are arbitrated in reverse order, so the schools with 200 oversized classes had already been and gone.  James went into a room and represented a school with 75 oversized classes. While he negotiated each and every one of them, I kept highlighting.

There are things you see when you highlight that you’d never notice otherwise.  For example, many classes are actually multiple classes meeting with the same teacher in one classroom. I noticed we have a Hebrew class that includes two levels, one with 23 and another with 14. I’m grieving that as a class of 37, but if you do a straight average, there are only 18.5 kids in each class.

The gym classes are even more interesting.  Many kids go to gym four days a week and attend lab the fifth, so you get several sections.  Though they all meet together, one meets M,T,W,Th, another meets M,T,W,F, and another meets four other days.  In fact, I’m looking at one now with five sections.  The first has 38, the second 9, the third 0, the fourth 5, and the fifth 0 again. Gym classes max at 50, and on Friday the class has 52, so I’m grieving it.  Still, if you average it out, there are a mere 10.4 kids in each class.  It seems like a very efficient way to reduce class sizes on paper.

As I was highlighting my brains out, the Department of Education’s Chief Operating Officer Photeine “Photo” Anagnostopoulos was delivering testimony on the Contract for Excellence at a City Council hearing. Apparently, the city is doing a great job with the Contract for Excellence, which is designed to reduce class sizes.

The very first example of the city’s stellar work was Francis Lewis High School. A chart accompanying Anagnostopoulos’ testimony mentions that class size is a mere four above target levels, but fails to mention that the target level is 30. This means class size at Lewis is at the contractual maximum, 34, hardly anything worth bragging about. They’re supposed to reduce class sizes by adding teachers to newly constructed sites — but there aren’t any newly constructed sites. It indicates class size has been steadily decreasing, but if it’s at maximum this year, and last year there were no oversized classes, how is that even possible?

And how do they calculate class size?  Does that gym class count as one class or five?  And what about the other dozens of gym classes?

If we disregard that and assume their math is totally above board, how can they boast about a school with 73 oversized classes-particularly when they may stay that way? Every few years, administration can claim an exception to the class size rule. In fact, when there’s absolutely no other place to put kids, they’re liable to do just that.

Our arbitrator was not convinced we’d done everything possible to reduce class sizes.  He told us to come up with a better plan.

With a 12-hour day and virtually no space, that’s no easy task.  Nonetheless, with class sizes above maximum, rampant overcrowding, 14 periods, and 73 oversized classes, we seem to be the poster child for the Department of Education’s handling of class size.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.