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Downey’s Warren High School is a case study in how overcrowding can undermine learning
Low test scores plague Downey school, as officials grapple with solutions
By Yoo Mi Chin
DOWNEY - The fewer the better: Smaller classes create a more effective learning environment, so goes the conventional wisdom. But that’s not the norm for many students in California, especially in the Downey Unified School District, south of Los Angeles, where the number of students enrolled in the district’s high schools is significantly higher than the average high school. Warren High School, one of three public high schools in the city of Downey, enrolled 3,548 high school students in the 2006-2007 school year, making it one of the most crowded high schools in Los Angeles County. High school enrollments in the county and state average less than 2,000.
But crowded public schools are common, and so are the problems that come with them.What becomes problematic is a high student-teacher ratio – there were only 147 teachers, including seven counselors, six administrations and one librarian, last school year for 916 freshmen, 931 sophomores, 901 juniors and 800 seniors.
“Our core class size averages are about 36-to-1,” said John M. Harris, Warren’s principal. “We try to keep our core classes like English, social studies, math and science classes small.”
The core class’ student-teacher ratio is nothing when it’s compared to elective classes such as music and physical education. These classes have a 60- to-1 student-teacher ratio.
Learning in a crowded school
Warren is a case study of how a large school can undermine its students and teachers. The current enrollment in the DUSD is 22,500 this year, divided among 13 elementary, four middle and three high schools. Warren High School alone takes one seventh of the district’s total enrollment. Located in the city of Downey, Warren has had more than 3,000 enrolled students for more than five years. At Warren, students speak more than twenty different languages in addition of English, with Spanish being the most common. About 70 percent of the Warren Students are Hispanic.
Warren High School Classroom
Warren faculty meets every Monday morning to discuss the ways to improve the students’ learning experience. One of the programs provided to students is the Crew Link program created to help ninth grade students communicate with upperclassmen and learn academic skills from older students. The students meet for the first time on the last day of August before the school begins. Freshmen ask seniors about class scheduling to school parties, providing some of the functions of school counselors. There are only six counselors for 3,550 students, and students can’t often get answers of their questions because counselors are overwhelmed. So, apparently, are the teachers.
“I haven’t had English homework for last three weeks,” said Harrison Park, a sophomore. “Teachers usually give in-class exercises that we grade our own, or our friends’, in class. We hardly get homework because teachers don’t have enough time to grade them.” Not only are the students not assigned any homework, but most of their classes are conducted in group discussions in the absence of the teacher’s active participation. In an hour-long class, students are divided into groups to carry out their own discussion after a few minutes of the teachers’ instructions. “My teacher is busy with other stuff, like attendance,” said Sean Song, a Warren student. Teachers at the school declined to be quoted by name, but several said that teaching core subjects in a class of more than 30 students is not easy.
California’s booming enrollments
Class size has long been an issue in a state where enrollments have grown rapidly over the years because of migration and immigration. In 1978, the state conducted a study about class size and concluded that a student-teacher ratio of 15 to 1 to 20 to 1 had optimum benefits for student achievement. Two years later, in 1980, California approved its first class size reduction measure. Another decade passed before the state attempted to shrink class size again, this time in the form of additional state aid if school districts voluntary assumed the initial costs of hiring more teachers and building more classrooms. Senate Bill 666, also known as the Morgan-Hart Class Size Reduction Act of 1989, started providing funds to school districts that reduced class size in ninth grade English and one other freshman course required for graduation. The act required that an average class
can be no larger than 20 students to one teacher and no class could be larger than 22 students.
While class size is not the only factor that determines academic achievement, research has long indicated that overcrowded classrooms tend to produce lower test scores. In the last school year, for example, most Warren students failed the Advanced Placement exams, which award high school students college credit across a variety of subjects before they enroll in college. One hundred thirty nine students earned a one, the lowest score possible. Another 139 students scored two, and 155 students scored three, the minimum mark for passing. Those who received scores of four or five, the top score, were fewer than 150 students. In 2005, more students failed the advanced placement exam than passed. Warren students also scored lower on all three areas of the SAT – verbal, math and writing -- than the statewide average.
Reducing class size
DUSD board members and Warren High School teachers fully understand the need of reducing class sizes and the benefits it will bring to both the students and teachers. However, reducing a class size is proving virtually impossible, because of financial issues.
“In many ways, class size reduction ends up becoming economics in many aspects, not just dollars and cents,” said John Harris, the principal. “For instance, if you were to take and do a class size reduction in just the cores, and you limited those classes to 20 to1 ratio, from an economic stand point, you alter the master schedule in such ways that would just be radical.”
One hurdle is space. Warren High School does not have enough classrooms to accommodate lower student-teacher ratio core courses. The school would need 25 to 35 percent more classroom space to limit each class to its desired ratio. “Our school buildings were not built to house that many students in that smaller ratio on campus,” Harris said. “So just from a classroom standpoint alone, it would be nearly impossible to run 20 to1 in just the core.”
The second problem is the well-documented teacher shortage. To form an ideal class size, 15 students need to be taken out from each class and placed somewhere else. This means another 75 to 80 teachers. “Not only do you not have the classroom space to go 20 to1, you also don’t have the teachers. If you start calculating the minimum salary for those 80 teachers, that’s a lot,” Harris said.
The DUSD tried reducing class sizes for secondary schools a decade ago. The three public high schools, including Warren High School, tried what was called a “block schedule.” In order to provide the students with smaller class sizes, the school district offered rotating schedules. Students only had three blocks of school a day and three days of school a week. For example, if a student had first, third and fifth period one day, he or she would have second, fourth and sixth period the next day of school. The class size became smaller, as two groups of students were rotating, taking classes every other day. However, the inventive scheduling didn’t help students. Under the plan, Downey’s test scores on statewide tests declined, and the Downey school district reverted to the more traditional system.
The block schedule was only intended as a temporary fix, the only solution back then. It was the budget that stopped every action that the schools wanted to take to enhance their students’ learning and teachers’ teaching experiences. “The state and the federal government come up with what they think are good ideas, but they never fund it fully,” said Barbara Samperi, a DUSD board member, referring to the state’s class reduction act. “Because it is not federally funded, class size reduction is beyond our general fund budget. We can’t hire more teachers and build more classes.”
Parents respond by hiring tutors
While DUSD officials consider other options to make Warren more user friendly for students, school officials won’t be turning to what many consider the state’s flawed 1989 class size reduction legislation, which has been more successful in elementary schools than secondary schools. “It is easy to open and close elementary schools because their facilities are not that complicated,” Harris said. “It is a little more difficult to build a middle school. It is very difficult to build a high school program, because the curriculum itself is far more complicated than any of the schools of previous levels.”
Absent any quick fix by the school district, parents and their children have taken matters into their own hands, at considerable cost. Many have hired tutors for their children, in effect paying more money on top of the taxes they already pay to support Warren High School.
“I spend extra $1,000for my son’s private education,” said a Warren parent who hires two tutors – one for math and the other for the SAT essay writing. “I know that Warren teachers are trying hard to help the students with college preparation, but in a class with more than 30 students, one-on-one college counseling is just not going to happen. This is where private tutoring kicks in. It is an extra expenditure, but it’s worth it.”
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