Counting Class Size

Quietly, UFT reports that classroom overcrowding is getting worse

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
To deal with school overcrowding, the city has installed classroom trailers outside buildings that are over capacity. A teacher survey shows more classes are overcrowded than last year, but the United Federation of Teachers has played down the results so far.

More than 6,300 overcrowded classrooms were enough to prompt a press conference by the teachers union last September decrying the city’s inattention to class sizes. This year, 6,447 overcrowded classrooms weren’t.

In a shift indicative of the new working relationship between city government and the United Federation of Teachers, the number of overcrowded classes was noted only in an article in the union’s internal newspaper, New York Teacher. And rather than report overcrowded classes at their peak, the story says 3,500 classes exceeded limits — a number from after the city had already begun to reduce overcrowding.

The numbers come from class counts done by teachers during a two-week period at the start of every school year. When the class sizes exceed the limit agreed to in the union’s contract, the union can file grievances to get classes reduced in size. In high school grades, for instance, the contract says class sizes can’t exceed 34 students. (The UFT provided this year’s peak figure in response to requests from Chalkbeat.)

For years, class sizes stayed flat or decreased during the Bloomberg years. But they began to increase in 2009, especially in elementary grades, following budget cuts caused by the economic recession. That trend has continued over the last five years, with early grades reaching a 14-year high in 2013, according to the UFT.

The average first-grade class, for instance, had 24 students last year, up from 22 in 2010, according to a city report released earlier this month. Citywide, average class sizes are still below the contract’s limits.

Class sizes are intensely debated in New York City, where school overcrowding is a top concern among both parents and teachers. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was dismissive of growing class sizes, often saying that he’d prefer to have great teachers serving more students than smaller classes with inferior teachers.

As a candidate for mayor, Bill de Blasio said he would establish class size reduction goals that would be achieved by the end of his first term. In a speech to principals in January, Chancellor Carmen Fariña said reducing class sizes were a priority, but more of a long-term goal.

Since taking office, de Blasio has targeted new school construction toward perennially overcrowded areas. And education department officials also said that a space-sharing working group, whose recommendations are expected to be released this fall, will also be working on reducing class sizes.

But advocates say that, so far, the new administration’s efforts have not amounted to a serious plan. On Sept. 22, a group of 73 university professors signed a letter urging de Blasio to implement a plan to reduce class sizes, arguing the reductions would especially help at-risk students and that large classes in older grades could undermine the benefits of his efforts to expand pre-kindergarten.

“There’s no evidence that I see that either the city or the UFT has this on their agenda as an issue that needs to be addressed,” Class Size Matters Executive Director Leonie Haimson said.

Before de Blasio was elected, the UFT went to great lengths to slam the city when it released class size reports at September press conferences and rallies in recent years. To maximize the impact of their analysis, the union calculated the total number of overcrowded classes by adding up the most-crowded days, even if numbers decreased throughout during the survey period.

In addition to the union’s reports, the city issues its own class size tallies each November, after schools set their official registers for the year, often confirming trends noted by the union.

Haimson said the contractual violations, while important to address, were only “the tip of the iceberg.” She said the city should use funds to lower class sizes so that they are more in line with goals set forth in the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit settlement, which required the state to earmark money specifically for six different purposes, including reducing class size.

Privately, the union is still taking action. Earlier this month, the United Federation of Teachers filed demands for arbitration for oversized classes at 537 schools where the overcrowding is concentrated. Three Queens high schools—Hillcrest, Forest Hills, and Benjamin Cardozo—alone housed 605 of the oversized classes, according to New York Teacher.

UFT Michael Mulgrew told the union publication that he was optimistic that the new administration was open to lowering class sizes quickly.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede