Class size increase

There are 31 students in this gifted and talented English 10 class at Dulaney High School. Classes are becoming larger because of cuts in the numbers of teaching positions. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / April 27, 2012)

Baltimore County's decision to cut nearly 200 teaching positions last year has had far-reaching consequences in high schools, where hundreds of classes have been dropped from the rolls, leaving many more students packed into classrooms.

At Dulaney High School, for example, a chemistry teacher with a class of 34 said his students must take turns doing lab experiments because the stations are too small to accommodate more than three or four at a time. A journalism teacher doesn't have enough computers for each of her budding writers, so she sends part of the class to the library to do the work. And a math teacher has 168 students in her five classes, 30 or 40 more than would be normal.

Parents and teachers worry that the change, triggered by a cost-cutting move, threatens to undermine the quality of students' education. They say the increase in class size has made it more difficult for students to get individual attention and to participate in discussions.

"A teacher cannot realistically give 30-plus students specialized attention. How long before the bubble bursts? How many students are falling through the cracks? It's a shame that many students may not be reaching their full potentials," said Laura Mullen, a member of the Area Education Advisory Council, a group that gives the school board community input.

An analysis of class size data by The Baltimore Sun shows high schools dropped about 700 of their 9,200 classes. Nineteen were Advanced Placement classes, even though school administrators had pledged to the school board that they would not be cut at all.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said that fewer classes were offered this year because enrollment dropped in high schools and that some small classes, including AP, were offered online. The number of students dropped by about 500 to 30,664, according to school data.

The analysis also showed that while nearly all of the 26 high schools lost teaching positions, officials protected the lowest-performing high schools, where smaller classes were deemed important for struggling students. But that meant the best and brightest students at some of the county's star high schools have the largest classes.

About one-third of all classes at Dulaney, Towson and Pikesville have 30 or more students — a level that is used as a cap in some states; at Hereford, more than a quarter of classes are that big. All four schools are high-performing.

Donald Peccia, the head of human resources for county schools, said he was not aware of the number of classes with 30 or more students. "Thirty or more in a third of the classes is too many," he said after looking at the Sun analysis. He said the school system should take a closer look at the differences in some schools, adding, "That is certainly going to require more analysis."

It isn't just the physical education, art and music classes that have grown beyond 30 students; many core academic classes are large as well. At Dulaney, the average English class size went from 24 to 28; at Pikesville, the average biology class size has gone from 25 to 28.

Teachers at Dulaney say the large classes make it more difficult to get to know their students and give them individual attention.

"It is almost as if I am teaching an extra class," said American government teacher Sean Bowmaster, who says he has tried to be diligent about giving students quick feedback when they turn in assignments.

Students at Pikesville said they are not learning as much in large classes because the teachers spend more time disciplining students.

"It is kind of hard to learn," said Pikesville senior Ryan Kelly. "You can't really get the personal attention,"

Student-teacher ratio raised

Hairston decided to reduce the teaching staff as a way to save $12 million in the budget year that began July 1. The cuts were necessary, he said, because he had agreed to give all school system employees step increases, and other costs were growing.

Hairston cut 5 percent in school and administrative budgets, and reduced 196 teaching positions through attrition at high schools. Only one administrative position was eliminated.

Legislators wrote letters to the school board and Hairston, asking them to protect the classroom and make cuts elsewhere. Towson and Carver students rallied in front of the Towson courthouse, and Lansdowne parents expressed worry about the teachers they would lose.

Nevertheless, hundreds of high school teachers were redistributed into positions that became vacant over the summer in middle schools and elsewhere through the system.