Public Eye: 1 in 5 CPS elementary students starts in overcrowded classrooms

SHARE Public Eye: 1 in 5 CPS elementary students starts in overcrowded classrooms
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Students play ball after school on the playground of Audubon School. | Sun-Times file photo

Roughly one in five Chicago Public Schools elementary students starts the school year in overcrowded classrooms, which critics say reflects inadequate funding and misguided priorities by leaders.

CPS set the maximum class size at 28 for kindergarten and first, second and third grades; no more than 31 students should be in classrooms for grades four through eight.

And yet more than 51,000 CPS students were in classrooms that exceeded those standards a month into the 2014-15 school, the BGA found by analyzing CPS data obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

What that meant at Avalon Park Elementary School on the South Side: A kindergarten class with 51 children and a first-grade room with 48 kids – way above what’s considered acceptable for youngsters learning the basics of reading, writing and math.

At Parkside Community Academy, also on the South Side, a kindergarten class had 42 students, while a third-grade room had 37, records show.

In fact, nearly all of Parkside’s lower grades had 34 or more students, according to the BGA analysis of 20th-day enrollment, the CPS’ official head count 20 class days into the school year.

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Patricia Williams, who has six grandchildren at Parkside, summed up the size of the classes this way: “Ridiculous.”

“It is hard for those babies,” Williams said. “It is rowdy in the classroom. They are not getting the attention they need.”

Williams is worried about her second-grade and seventh-grade grandsons who seem to be falling behind, especially in reading. She said she repeatedly complained to school leadership and network administrators that the teachers didn’t have the time to focus on her grandsons, but no one responded. She is now trying to move them to a different school.

Principal Cedric Nolen refused to comment.

Systemwide about 1,600 elementary classrooms exceeded CPS’ own standards, about 20 percent of the nearly 8,500 non-charter elementary classrooms in the 2014-2015 school year, the BGA found.

Two-thirds of those overcrowded classrooms are on the South and West sides. About half have 90 percent or more low-income students.

There are about 230,000 non-charter elementary students in 409 schools. Most schools, 325, have at least one overcrowded room, the BGA found.

There are no formal penalties for exceeding classroom size standards.

As bad as the overcrowding numbers, previous analyses of CPS data indicates the numbers are improving. Two years ago there were 60,000 elementary students in overcrowded rooms.

However about 3,600 more kids attended charter schools this year, and CPS does not regularly monitor class sizes in charter schools. Schoolwide – rather than classroom – averages are reported to the Illinois State Board of Education. Those records indicate some Chicago charter schools are also exceeding district ceilings on class sizes.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said CPS closely monitors class size in non-charter schools and provides additional support in the form of teachers and aides for especially large classes, though that often happens after the 20th day of instruction.

Parents and teachers complain that CPS does not enforce its own standards and they often must fight to get more staff to handle large classes.

At Audubon Elementary School, a North Side elementary school where kindergarten classes had as many as 34 students, parents were irate, but “nobody did anything” at CPS to deal with concerns, according to Kathleen Hayes, a mother of a boy in pre-kindergarten.

Hayes said she loves the other parents at the school and wanted her son to be in the neighborhood but decided to transfer him next year to a school where the principal is committed to keeping class sizes at 28.

“As a parent I was worried about my son being lost in the shuffle,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that my son had a chance to be in a more personal classroom and to have a less stressed out teacher.”

Class sizes may keep rising in Chicago with possible school-level cuts in order to balance a projected $1.1 billion deficit. CPS is waiting for state government to adopt a budget before telling principals what their spending limits will be for next school year. About a third of CPS’ funding comes from the state.

Lois Jones, head of a Chicago Teachers Union panel that fields complaints by teachers about class size and recommends remedies, said of CPS: “They are always saying, ‘We don’t have the money.’”

Others said it’s a matter of priorities. “They could have chosen to lower the class sizes over many, many things,” said Wendy Katten of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand Illinois.

Class size is not an issue teachers can file an official union grievance over, but the union tries to work with CPS to remedy individual cases of overcrowding. It’s an issue often at the center of teacher contract negotiations.

Jeremy Finn, an education professor at State University of New York who did one of the landmark studies on class size, said small class sizes are beneficial for all students but are especially important for poor students.

“Small class sizes have long-term carryover on the achievement of students,” Finn said. Students who spend three or four years in small classes are more likely to take Advanced Placement and other high-level classes in high school, according to research.

By Sarah Karp, Better Government Association

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