Cuts force Peninsula schools to learn to live with fewer teachers

Cuts force Peninsula schools to learn to live with fewer teachers

In San Mateo County, there are several thousand more students than there were a few years ago, but several hundred fewer teachers.

The number of full-time equivalent teaching positions in the county dropped some 18 percent between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years, according to data provided by the county’s Office of Education. Meanwhile, the county’s total student body kept creeping up.

Click on the photo for a graphic of the growing gap between teacher and student numbers.

No official analysis has been conducted about why this is happening, but educators believe it can largely be blamed on growing elementary school class sizes. Just a few years ago, nearly every kindergarten through third-grade classroom had just 20 students. Today, many school districts average 25 or even 30 students in those classrooms, county Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell said.

That was the case in the San Mateo-Foster City School District, where the average class size has increased from 20 three years ago to 25 or 26 today, said Assistant Superintendent Molly Barton.

That was a change the district made reluctantly, but it had little choice when faced with state budget cuts, Barton said. While teachers are valiantly doing what it takes to continue to educate children, she said that’s tougher when there are more students.

At Bayshore Elementary School, classes have grown from 20 students per class to 27, Superintendent Toni Presta said. Most of that growth was from an increase in students, she said. Nonetheless, it’s not ideal.

“If we had more money, we would have hired more teachers,” she said. “I think it’s greatly impacted the classroom.”

Elementary schools aren’t the only ones getting by with fewer teachers. In junior high and high schools, many positions that once were full time — such as arts, physical education and music — are now part-time positions, or teachers are shared between districts, Campbell said.

Some schools have reduced their curriculum from a seven-period day to a six-period day, she said, which also allows them to cut classes and teachers.

“You’re seeing a combination of program cuts and classroom size growth,” she said.

This may also help explain another phenomenon: While there has been a decline in the total amount of time teachers spend in the schools, the actual number of certified people working in the schools has gone up. In other words, there are more teachers, but more are working part time or temporarily.

Budget cuts may not be solely responsible for this: School officials such as Barton say more teachers than before are requesting part-time gigs. Barton said many young teachers are requesting job-sharing programs, where they work part of the week and another teacher works the remaining days.

“From a management perspective, that’s not the most efficient arrangement, but it doesn’t really take away from the classroom experience,” she said.

Class-size growth, on the other hand, is often bad news for students, said Craig Childress, president of the Teachers Association for the San Mateo Union High School District. His school district hasn’t been forced to increase class sizes yet, because the limit is written into the district’s contract with teachers. But he knows that many Peninsula districts — and the students in them — have not been so fortunate.

“Most of the data shows that lower student-teacher ratios improve student performance,” he said.

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