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Class size jump poses new challenge for a successful school

Even at an elementary school with high scores, experienced teachers, and years of A’s on the city’s progress reports, budget cuts are taking a toll.

At Chinatown’s P.S. 130, average class size has ballooned from between 25 and 28 students per classroom last year to 32, the maximum allowed.

Because the school lost about $1 million from its budget in the last two years, it had to cut teaching positions and reading teachers, according to longtime Principal Lily Woo.

As Chancellor Dennis Walcott looked on today, second-grade teacher Danielle Cannistraci gathered her 31 students on the rug around the front of the classroom in a circle two rows deep for a lesson about shapes.

When she asked the students to name a three-dimensional shape with no round edges, half a dozen hands shot in the air with the answer (in this case, a pyramid).

Cannistraci, who has worked at P.S. 130 for 11 years, said the lesson exemplified her efforts to make her teaching more engaging. But with 31 students this year, up from 27, she said she is struggling to give each student individual attention and manage the time students spend doing group work.

“I’ve always put them in groups, but now I have a whole extra group — it’s become much harder,” she said. “Normally I have five groups for reading, writing, and math. But if I have six guided-reading groups I can’t focus on one in each day anymore because that means one group isn’t going to be seen at all.”

The problem seemed most daunting at the beginning of the school year, Cannistraci said, when she brought 32 students on a trip to the Childrens Museum of Art. “It seemed at first to be a little overwhelming,” she said.

But she said keeping the students engaged — during the field trip, with art supplies provided by museum staff — mitigates against the sheer size of the class.

“I was shocked because they worked so fabulously together,” she said about the students at the museum. “That showed me I could take more risks. They really seem to be hands-on learners. It keeps them engaged and motivated.”

Woo, who has led the school of nearly 1,100 students for over two decades, said having experienced teachers such as Cannistraci has unfortunately hamstrung P.S. 130 during a time of budget cuts. Because the city bills schools for their teachers’ real salaries, having a staff that earns an average $82,000 a year means there is less to spend on non-salary costs.

“It’s good because it means we have quality teachers, but bad because we have a lot less to cover things,” Woo said about her teachers’ experience. This year, the school cut spending on supplies and also went from eight full-time literacy specialists to three full-time and one part-time specialist.

The extended day program for some upper grades was almost lost as well, Woo said, but the parents’ association raised the funds to keep it operating.

One consolation, Woo said, is that experienced teachers are a better fit for oversize classes.

“For a highly effective teacher, yes, they would be even better with a smaller class. But for a less experienced or younger teacher, you could be one-on-one, and they still would not make an impact on the child,” she said. “Our teachers are very, very strong. They know that this is not something that we want, but it’s what we have to deal with whatever resources we have.”

Walcott spent most of his visit dropping in on classes. But he took a moment to praise Woo’s management skills to reporters.

“That’s the beauty of having a savvy principal who knows how to respond to her building needs, and at the same time deal with unfortunate realities,” he said.