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.
School officials raised the student-teacher ratio — from 18.7-1 to 20.7-1 — but the consequences of that decision were never detailed or discussed in public.
"They sort of lulled people into believing that class size wouldn't go up by more than one or two students, and that was clearly not the case," said Jean Suda, a Dulaney parent who studied the class sizes in that school.
To assess the impact, the Sun requested a list of every high school class offered in the county for the last two years and then analyzed the class sizes.
The average class size ranged, depending on the high school, from 19 to 25 this year, up two or three students per school. Average class sizes were smallest at Carver, Dundalk, Overlea, Sollers and Woodlawn. Two of the schools, Woodlawn and Dundalk, were overhauled recently and more staff assigned there to help them improve; their average class sizes did not increase as much.
The largest average class sizes, of 24 or more, were at Eastern Tech, Franklin, Pikesville, Perry Hall and Towson.
Research on the effect of increasing class sizes in high school — or even what the optimum size should be — is varied.
Across the nation, 36 states have limits on how large classes can be in schools, including Maryland. However, Maryland only limits the number in kindergarten. Nine states say a high school classroom shouldn't have more than 30 students, the most common cap for high schools, according to the Education Commission of the States.
"I am not aware of any high-quality research on high school," said Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who wrote a paper last year after reviewing class size research.
The average class size for high schools in the nation was 23 students in the 2007-2008 academic year, the last year data from the National Center for Education Statistics is available. Maryland was at the average.
'Level the playing field'
The analysis of Baltimore County data also revealed a disparity in the resources allotted to high schools. For years, teachers and parents said, the assumption has been that the high-achieving schools, particularly Towson, Dulaney and Hereford, had lower class sizes.
But the data shows that is not true. Even before the cuts in teaching positions, the Hairston administration had given more teachers to schools with the highest number of low-income students, which are often those schools that struggle the most.
"All kids do not come to the school with the same skill sets," said Peccia, noting that providing more teachers to those schools helped to "level the playing field."
Principals, teachers and parents said they agree with that philosophy and believe those schools deserve more staff. But the disparity in staffing levels between the low-performing schools and the high fliers was widened in last year's round of teaching cuts.
Schools such as Woodlawn lost staff, but not as much per student as Dulaney or Towson. At Dulaney, 36 percent of classes have 30 or more students; Towson and Pikesville have nearly a third of classes that size. Woodlawn has only 15 percent of classes with 30 or more students. Ten schools have more than 19 percent of their classes with 30 or more students.
Unlike elementary and middle schools, where students usually take the same subjects and can be equally distributed in classes, high schools offer a variety of classes, some more popular than others, making scheduling a challenge. Therefore, principals must decide whether they can afford to run an elective class with only 12 or 15 students, knowing that another class may have larger numbers of students as a result.
Some raised the question whether Dulaney, Towson, Pikesville, Hereford and Milford Mill, which have many large classes, might also have a greater number of small classes. But the analysis showed that was not the case. Woodlawn and Dundalk had twice the percentage of small classes as Towson and Dulaney.
Hairston said the number of classes can change annually, based on principals' decisions about what courses they will offer.
"It is the school's decision to offer electives based upon the number of registrants. Of course, that number will vary from year to year," Hairston said.
School board President Lawrence Schmidt said he will ask the new superintendent, Dallas Dance, who takes over July 1, to "examine the staffing issues on an ongoing basis. ... We must make sure that all students are challenged and given the opportunity and support they need; whether that is a gifted and talented student at one high school or a student who is academically struggling at another."
He added that he would like administrators to examine what effect large classes may have had on achievement.
Facing the challenge
A number of teachers at Pikesville High School said they were not concerned by larger class sizes and believed that they had in fact helped them to use more creative teaching strategies. For instance, MiaLissa Tompkins, a social studies teacher, said she has had students work together on making films, an activity that would have been difficult with a small class.
And Scott Nichols, a math teacher, said he found the larger classes "more comfortable" this year because the class discussions are more in-depth. "It is easier to have more minds work on a problem," he said.
But several Pikesville students did not express the same love of large classes as their teachers.
"Having a teacher's attention makes a big difference. I don't think I would have done as well" in an AP class if it had been large, said Sabah Muktar, a junior.
The students said large classes have sometimes forced them to advocate for themselves and depend more on classmates and not as much on their teachers for learning.
"I was very shy and didn't participate in any of the discussions" in the first semester of a class with more than 30 students, Muktar said. But as the year goes on, she has gained self-confidence and now speaks up.
At Dulaney and Towson, the size of English classes is a concern to some parents. Cindy Moore, a Loyola University Maryland professor who teaches writing and has a son who attends Dulaney, said she worries that large classes will mean students won't learn to articulate and support a thought, a level of writing expected at colleges.
"If you want students to learn, you want to give them feedback on areas where they need to improve," she said, and that means not just grading the work, but also having them revise their writing and grading it again, a time-consuming task.
Teachers at Dulaney and Towson agree that the large classes are challenging, despite their attempts to use creative solutions.
English teachers will spend about 20 minutes grading a paper, said Patricia Brown, Towson's English department chair. With 150 students, one assignment could take 50 hours to grade.
"If you are really trying to do the job, you grade papers all the time — before school, during school and at home," Brown said. To cope, her teachers are staggering writing assignments, so not all of their five classes are writing the same week, and are reducing the number of pages required for each assignment.
"It is nothing for teachers to spend three or four hours every night grading papers," said Jennifer Meehan, a ninth-grade English teacher at Towson.
With one of her smaller classes, Meehan said, everyone has a turn speaking each day and she can move more quickly through the material.
"It is harder for kids to hide or be lost," she said.
Baltimore Sun community manager Olivia Hubert-Allen contributed to this article.