More than 1,560 homerooms in Chicago public elementary schools are over the school district’s class size limits, according to numbers obtained by WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago Magazine from Chicago Public Schools. The revelation comes as Chicago is proposing to shut down a historic 53 grammar schools. Activists have raised repeated concerns that the massive restructuring will result in more overcrowded classrooms.
According to records, 50,421 children are in homerooms that are over the suggested class size limits. The numbers show 26,545 of Chicago’s littlest learners—in kindergarten, first or second grades— are in classrooms with 29 or more students. The district’s own guidelines say classes should be capped at 28 kids for younger students, 31 for third graders and up.
Eight thousand elementary school children are in classes with 35 or more students. Some are in homerooms of 40, even 45.
Wendy Katten, CPS parent and director of the nonprofit Raise Your Hand, says the numbers heighten her group’s concerns about the impact of closing schools. “Parents want class size addressed by the district,” says Katten. “And instead we’re moving to consolidate schools. 129 schools are going to be impacted with these closings. And what we’ll have is overcrowding and higher class sizes.”
The schools targeted to close or receive students tend to have lower class sizes than the rest of the district’s schools, the numbers show. On the low end, many classes have just a dozen or so students.
School officials have admitted privately that class sizes will increase for students in closing and receiving schools. They do not believe classes will hit 36, as activists have charged.
But the numbers obtained from the school district show that 18 percent of all elementary school homerooms have quietly crept over the recommended class size limits written into the teachers contract and school board policy.
“I hear members constantly letting me know that their class sizes are over what’s recommended in the contract,” says Chicago Teachers Union financial secretary Kristine Mayle. “This has been going on for years, it’s getting worse each year, and with this round of closures I think it’s going to make it even worse.”
Little recourse for large classes
Technically, neither teachers nor parents have any real recourse if they are assigned to teach or their children assigned to learn in a class above the limit. A joint union-district committee tries to look into the most egregious violations, Mayle says. But the committee has no real teeth and is overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.
The numbers indicate that even the district’s top grammar schools regularly overenroll students.
Asked why the district allows so many classes to go above limits, Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Becky Carroll wrote in an email, “The ‘District’ doesn't allow for this. These are decisions made by principals.”
Carroll says the board policy provides principals with “guidelines.” She says the district won’t know what class sizes will be like in receiving schools until enrollment is completed and principals have decided “how to structure their classrooms.” But, she added, “combining resources at underutilized schools will enable school leaders to access the supports needed to give these children a quality education, which many are not getting at this time.”
Research has shown that class size reductions help in younger grades, especially when it comes to low-income children. The research is less conclusive for older kids. But lowering class sizes is popular among parents and teachers. And it’s expensive. Chicago school officials have said it would cost $26 million to lower class size by a single student. And while the district has not provided details about how exactly it plans to save $43 million annually by closing 54 schools, some of that cost savings could come from taking two classrooms of 15—in two underutilized schools—and creating a single 30-student class.
The school district has pointed out that most classes that are over are over by 1, 2, or 3 students. But The Chicago Teachers Union contends that Chicago’s class size guidelines are already high, even when schools don’t go over them.
“A teacher can’t get to that first grader who’s trying to sound out words. You need individualized instruction at that age,” says union officer Kristine Mayle. “If you look at most of the suburbs around us , if you look at the Lab School for instance, they’re closer to 20, 22, 24 kids, at the very top of it is 24.”
Mayle said principals are given a “false choice” when it comes to class size—since buying extra teachers to keep class sizes low often means giving up something else, like an art teacher or a security guard.
WBEZ and Catalyst have been seeking the class size numbers since December.
The data is a snapshot of enrollment taken the 20th day of this school year, the district’s traditional date for official enrollment counts. It’s a date schools often wait impatiently for; if more students than expected enroll, they can request additional teachers after the 20th day. The eight-month-old numbers are no longer completely accurate, since students come and go from schools. In some cases the district has authorized additional hiring, reducing class size. Phone calls to schools reveal that in other cases, classes have gotten bigger.
Principals at schools with large class sizes say they do what they can. Some hire substitutes until they are given the okay to hire another teacher. Some combine grades and run split classrooms. One South Side classroom had 44 third-graders until late April. According to staff there, that's when the authorization to hire an additional teacher came through. Next year, the district is switching to per-pupil budgeting, meaning principals will no longer have to wait for downtown authorization to hire a teacher; but they will have to weigh the importance of class size each time an additional student enrolls.
This story was co-reported with Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago Magazine.
ABOUT THE DATA: The class size file obtained by WBEZ from Chicago Public Schools is attached below. The excel file is a report showing the number of students assigned to homerooms in district-run Chicago elementary schools on the 20th Day of the 2012-13 school year, by school. Self-contained special education homerooms are not included. Pre-K classrooms are not included (except in limited cases where a school has a split pre-K/kindergarten class). Class sizes may have shifted (up or down) since the 20th Day due to student mobility, additional staffing from central office, or actions taken by the principal (such as combining two small classes into one or splitting a large class between other classes). Data source: Chicago Public Schools
|CLASS SIZE||Number of homerooms this size in CLOSING schools||Number of homerooms this size in designated RECEIVING schools||Number of homerooms this size in UNAFFECTED schools||Grand Total|