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When Bigger Isn't Better: New schools and class size in Oregon

Last year, five-year-old Madi Sebulsky attended Summit High School - sort of. Madi, along with approximately 35 other four, five and six-year-olds went to kindergarten


Last year, five-year-old Madi Sebulsky attended Summit High School - sort of. Madi, along with approximately 35 other four, five and six-year-olds went to kindergarten at the high school because their school, High Lakes Elementary, didn't have enough classroom space to house all the newly arrived kindergartners. In an effort to keep class sizes from ballooning, High Lakes set up kindergarten classes at the nearby high school.

Getting creative is something that Oregonian educators, and students, have gotten accustomed to given the state's notoriously poor record of funding schools. But the results have been mixed. And one of the biggest, and largely unmet, challenges remains shrinking class sizes at the elementary level - something that researchers say is key to helping kids succeed later in life.

For the past decade, Oregon has been known for having class sizes well above the national average. The Chalkboard Project, an independent non-partisan organization created by five of Oregon's leading foundations, shows Oregon's class sizes as being fourth highest in the country. The Bend-La Pine School District has addressed this issue by setting a goal of 18 students per teacher in grades K-3, but like other districts throughout the state, local schools are finding it difficult to maintain these target ratios, especially in tough economic times when schools typically face cutbacks because of Oregon's centralized funding system.

And right now there is a storm growing.


Oregon's Office of Economic Analysis' June 2008 report states that Oregon stands on the verge of another recession, with employment falling in numerous job sectors. Providing quality education to Oregon's youngest students is a challenge that isn't likely to get any easier, and the potential for more budget cuts makes class size one of many funding issues perched precariously on the edge of the economic cliff.

"Over time... the total pod of dollars available to schools has not kept up with inflation since 1992. And what do we buy with these dollars that the state gives us? We buy teachers. So when our dollars are reduced, our teachers are reduced or aren't available to grow as fast as our student populations," says John Rexford, Deputy Superintendent of the Bend-La Pine School District.

Julianne Repman, Communications Director for the Bend-La Pine School District says that Bend-La Pine is the fastest growing large school district in the state as of last year. Evidence of this population boom has been felt by the area schools, which are stretching funds as far as possible in an attempt to accommodate the flood of new students. This fall, Bend-La Pine will open three new elementary schools including the 575-student William E. Miller Elementary School on Skyliners Road west of Mt. Washington Drive and the 575-student Ponderosa Elementary School at the Bend Pine Nursery site on Bend's northeast side. But in a strange irony of Oregon school funding, more classrooms won't necessarily mean more teachers or smaller class sizes.

The Chalkboard Project reports that "Oregon still relies on fewer staff and teachers than most states, resulting in a relatively large class size." Numerous studies, including the 1999 study entitled Reducing Class Size, What Do We Know, which, according to the Oregon State Board of Education (OSBA), was the basis for the national initiative to reduce class size, state that a reduction of class size is particularly important in elementary school. The study found that decreasing class size in kindergarten through third grade lead to higher student achievement. The study states "if class size is reduced from substantially more than 20 students per class to below 20 students, the related increase in student achievement moves the average student from the 50th percentile up to somewhere above the 60th percentile. For disadvantaged and minority students, the effects are somewhat larger."

Marieka Peterson is a second/third-grade teacher at the Highland Elementary Magnet School (the school chooses to blend together grades in an effort to allow teachers to get to know their students better over a period of two years). Peterson taught a class of 27 second and third-graders last year. She would have had a class of 28, but one student left during the year. Peterson says that magnet schools in particular are affected by the increasing population.

"Our school is stuck between a rock and a hard place," says Peterson, "We're in an older building and our actual physical classrooms tend to be smaller than the other classrooms in the district. We also operate on a lottery system so we don't get to just redraw boundary lines when we start to get overcrowded."

Peterson says that Highland has been trying to reduce the 2nd grade class sizes to 26 students since she began teaching at the school two years ago.

Peterson, who taught a second-grade math class of 29 students her first year at Highland and has been a substitute teacher for a fourth-grade class of 35, says that teaching large numbers of elementary students is particularly difficult.

"To think that there are 27 families in my room that are counting on me to make sure their child comes home physically and mentally safe and sound at the end of the day along with the fact that I'm supposed to be teaching them how to read and write and think critically about the world is overwhelming," says Peterson. "I think it goes without saying that if we had half as many students as we did, the job would be much more manageable and much more possible - it's an impossible task to do what we do in a classroom of 30-plus students."

Area school districts are feeling the pinch as they try to alleviate problems of rising student/teacher ratios while enrollments continue to climb. School districts like Bend-La Pine have had to find alternative solutions. Such was the case with Madi Sebulsky who, along with her classmates, was shuffled from High Lakes Elementary over to Summit High School. Jackie Sebulsky, Madi's mother, says that luckily, the school's decision turned into a wonderful experience for her daughter.

"The older kids just embraced all the kindergartners and were constantly coming and doing art projects and reading with the kids," says Sebulsky. "I really think it enhanced [her] experience so much more - the French class would come in and do French exercises with the kids and the Spanish class would do the same and so we were just really lucky."

Bend-La Pine's Rexford says that there has been a definite "pinching down" of the resources available to school districts state-wide and that a large contributor to this has been the passing of the 1990 Ballot Measure 5.

"The effect of Ballot Measure 5 was to shift what was a system where about two-thirds of the funding for local schools was provided by local property taxes and less than one-third from state revenue," says Rexford. "Now it's almost the mirror image of that."

According to the OSBA, Ballot Measure 5 lowered the amount of property taxes schools could raise towards funding. It also transferred the responsibility for school funding from local government to the state government. The state government funds its education department almost entirely from income tax revenue.

Gene Evans, Communications Director for the state School Superintendent for the Oregon Department of Education sees Ballot Measure 5 as having both positive and negative impacts on the education system.

"Switching to state funding certainly has equalized the distribution of funds across the state, making it a more equitable funding model so that students in big districts get basically the same amount of money as students in small districts," says Evans. "I also think there are definitely some school districts that long for the old days when they could have all the music and art and foreign language teachers that they wanted because the local community would support them."

What's important to remember is that there is a difference between operating dollars (which are provided primarily by the state) and capital construction, or school construction dollars, which are funded mostly by local property taxes and bonds that voters approve.

What this means for Bend, a community that clearly supports its local school district, is that funding for building more schools and more classrooms isn't necessarily the problem when it comes to reducing class size - it's staffing those new classrooms with teachers whose salaries come from the state's operating dollars.

Evans agrees. He says that when budget cuts happen, larger class sizes are the result.

"When there are budget cuts ... one of the easiest places to save money is by eliminating staff," says Evans. "That's where the bulk of what a school district's money is spent - on teachers - so by eliminating a teacher, you can save money, but that increases your class size."

The last large-scale budget cuts to the education system occurred after the record economic downturn experienced in Oregon in 2001 which hit school districts hard by 2002-2003.

"It was devastating," says Evans. "Schools lost librarians, lost counselors, lost music teachers, shop teachers, art instructors ... it was devastating across the state and certainly nothing significant has changed from 2003 to where we are now ... we certainly have the possibility for the same thing to happen again."

Oregon state Representative Chuck Burley claims that reducing class size is important for the state. State Rep. Burley, however, says that he finds that the problem seems to be in raising funds to build more classes and not hiring more teachers.

"Paying for more teachers isn't necessarily the answer," says state Rep. Burley. "There is still the problem of where you will put the students physically - that's why you see so many modular classrooms. Modular classrooms are okay, but I don't think that they are necessarily conducive to a child's learning."

Bend-La Pine has been working with the existing funds they receive from the state to reduce class sizes every way they can. The district has also used its construction funds to build schools that focus on creating smaller communities within the school. One working example of this is Pine Ridge Elementary, which has just added two new wings this year. Each wing contains a self-sufficient group of classrooms, each with a bathroom, multipurpose/media room and smaller offset rooms that can be utilized for everything from special education to music programs. High Lakes Elementary works with flexible groups of kids and staggers their student's schedules to alleviate strain.

"We try to use all the tricks in the bag, you have to be creative sometimes when your goal is to reduce class size," says Bert Gottschalk, a fifth-grade teacher at High Lakes. "At a certain point though, there's only so much that a local school or school district can do, and I would say that the school district here has done everything it can with the resources it has to try to lower class size."

What remains clear is that school districts are in need of funding and will be unable to reduce class size without help. And the thing that's holding educational funding back is Oregon's Byzantine tax structure. The General Fund, which accounts for approximately 28.8 percent of the state's total budget for 2007-2009, provides funding for education, human services, public safety, economic and community development, the natural resources department and much more. The OSBA reports that 74 percent of all revenue for the General Fund comes from a single source - income tax.

"There's dumb, dumber and dumbest and then there's Oregon's tax structure," says state Senator Ben Westlund, a self-described budget wonk who is running for state treasurer. "Our dependence on the income tax is not fiscally prudent," he says.

According to the OSBA, "Oregon is more reliant and more dependent on a single source of revenue than any other state ... and income tax is less stable than other tax sources."

This instability was proven in 2001-2002 when Oregon experienced a 23 percent revenue loss as the country experienced a major recession. During that summer, state Sen. Westlund wrestled with a $2.2 billion budget cut for the General Fund as budget chief. He says that he made education a priority and shifted most of the financial cuts onto the other areas of the General Fund, but still had to cut approximately two million dollars from the education budget. According to state Sen. Westlund, there is currently a group of legislators and citizen groups working to change the existing revenue structure to a more rational and stable one.

Meanwhile, over at Pine Ridge Elementary the two newly completed wings are piled high with tiny green plastic chairs while inside the new classrooms, haphazard rows of desks sit empty. The floors are polished, the windows smudge-free and the school is eerily quiet. When school starts, these rooms will be full, very full. William E. Miller Elementary already expects a full enrollment of 575 students. Madi Sebulsky and her classmates will be attending one of the ten first-grade classes at High Lakes Elementary while a whole new class of kindergartners experience primary school at Summit High School. With an estimated K-12 enrollment of 15,342 last year and enrollment numbers continuing to rise, what will happen to class size in Bend if education receives another budget cut? For Bendites with children in school, this is one question for which they probably don't want an answer.

Oregon's Quailty Education Model:

How are we matching up?

In 1999, a legislative committee headed by Crook County resident and former legislator Lynn Lundquist developed a model to be used when determining K-12 school budgets. "Prototype Schools" are used for elementary, middle and high school.

Prototype Elementary School - 340 Students

Class sizes:
Grades K-3 - 20 students
Grades 4-5 - 24 students

(Projected) William E. Miller Elementary School - 575 students
Class sizes (based off of 2007-2008 district averages)
Kindergarten - 18.4 students
Grade 1 - 18.5 students
Grade 2 - 20.3 students
Grade 3 - 26 students
Grade 4 - 28.4 students
Grade 5 - 28.6 students 

The Statistics:

The Chalkboard Project reported in 2007, 77% of Oregonians surveyed believed that too many students were "falling through the cracks" of Oregon schools. How do we compare to other states?Students/Teacher Ratios 2006:

Oregon - 19.5 to 1
National Average - 15.6 to 1
Washington - 19.3 to 1
California - 20.8 to 1
New York - 12.9 to 1
Connecticut - 14.5 to 1
Texas - 15.0 to 1
* The Chalkboard Project reported that the 2007 national average was 14.8

Total Enrollment:
OR - 552,194
WA - 1,031,985
CA - 6,437,202
NY - 2,815,581
CT - 575, 059
TX - 4,525,394

The Slump:

State economists predict that the 2001-2002 recession will continue to sag the 2007-2009 budget. What will hurt the income tax base:

*  Wood products sector to fall 5.6% in 2008, 1.7% further in 2009
* Computer and electronic equipment sector jobs decline 3.1% in 2008, 2.1% further in 2009
* Transportation equipment sector jobs decline 6.7% in 2008, 1.4% further in 2009
*  Construction employment decreases 8% in 2008, 2.3% further in 2009
* Financial activities loses 1.9% of its workers in 2008

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