Some Chicago classrooms overcrowding as teachers union demands harder limits on class sizes

Though caps on class sizes are already in the union’s labor contract, they’re routinely exceeded without a strict way to enforce them.

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Chicago teachers and students discuss large class sizes Wednesday, Oct. 9, outside Simeon Career Academy.

Nader Issa/Sun-Times

After years of complaints from students, parents and teachers about overcrowded classrooms in Chicago schools, reducing class sizes has become a priority for the Chicago Teachers Union in its latest round of contract negotiations.

Though caps on class sizes are already in the union’s labor contract, they’re routinely exceeded without a strict way to enforce them.

Current limits call for 28 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade classes and 31 kids for grades up through 8th. If a K-2 classroom ends up with 32 or more students, a teacher’s assistant is assigned to the class.

All core subject high school classes, meanwhile, are supposed to have no more than 28 students — art, music and gym classes have limits of 31, 34 and 40 kids, respectively.

Gloria Torres, a 1st grade teacher at Fort Dearborn Elementary School, said she has 34 students in her classroom, all with different needs. Some kids, she said, don’t know their letters, while others are starting to read.

“How can I teach them the way that I need to teach them if the classes are overcrowded,” Torres said.

The CTU has proposed knocking kindergarten classrooms down to 20 kids, with 1st through 3rd grade classes at no more than 24 students. The union wants all 4th through 12th grade classes capped at 28 kids, and has also proposed a method to enforce the limits: Teachers would get $5 a day per student that’s over the limit.

Chicago Public Schools, meanwhile, have proposedalso providing teaching assistants to 3rd grade classrooms over the limit — an offer the district says is worth $10 million for 200 new positions.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in an emailed statement, “The district has made significant progress to minimize classroom overcrowding in the vast majority of schools across the city, and our offer makes a $10 million investment to provide 200 staff members to support classrooms experiencing overcrowding.”

Maria Aguirre and her math students at Simeon Career Academy, however, wouldn’t be eligible to receive a teacher’s assistant since they’re in high school.

Aguirre is in her second year at Simeon, and she has five classes all at 32 or more students. One class she teaches, 9th grade algebra, has 37 teens — nine over the current cap.

“At any given time, I have at least three or four students with their hands up,” Aguirre said. “And they have to wait until I get to the next person.”

Neryssa Scott, a sophomore at Simeon, said it’s “frustrating” that she has to deal with large classes — such as one of her math classes that she said has 37 kids — and can’t get the support she needs.

“We can’t learn,” Neryssa said. “There’s too many students in a classroom where they can’t even give us the lesson they want to teach because they have to go around having to explain, and that’s really frustrating.

“Today I couldn’t get the help that I needed because [my teacher] had to keep going around the classroom trying to tell them to calm down or help other students, and she couldn’t help me,” Neryssa said. “And I understand that might sound selfish, but it’s not. ... I’m trying to pass, but I can’t do that because there’s only one teacher for almost 40 students.”

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