1 teacher + 2 grade levels produce poor results, chief of YEA argues

By Harold Gwin

One teacher said she has to cover fifth- and sixth- grade curricula in the same room.

YOUNGSTOWN — The union representing Youngstown city school teachers said some elementary school children aren’t getting their fair share of instruction time because they are assigned to “split” classes.

Those classes combine two grade levels in a single classroom because of an enrollment surplus in one of the grades, said William Bagnola, president of the teachers union, the Youngstown Education Association.

Bagnola brought the union’s concern this week to the state fiscal oversight commission controlling district spending, saying that when the issue of split classes has been raised with the school administration, teachers are told that the commission won’t allow additional teacher hirings.

The commission is working with the school district as it seeks to get out of state-declared fiscal emergency, a designation Youngstown has had since November 2006.

The district has cut about 520 jobs over the last three years to reduce spending, and the teacher complement has dropped from 850 six years ago to about 585 this year.

Bagnola said the YEA sent the commission a letter last spring regarding its concerns that continual teacher cuts would affect student learning and performance.

Those fears were realized when the 2009 state report card showed Youngstown had slipped from an academic-watch designation to academic emergency, the lowest report-card rating, he said.

Karen Green, assistant superintendent for human resources, said the district is running four or five split classes now and is trying to resolve the problem.

One way to do that is to ease a grade overage by persuading some parents to allow their children to be moved to another city school, but many are unwilling to make that change, she said.

The practice isn’t a violation of the teacher contract, but, if the district can resolve it, it will, she said.

Jodi Kosek, a teacher at Harding Elementary School, also addressed the commission on the issue, saying that she teaches a split class of 11 fifth graders and 13 sixth graders.

Those two groups of students have different curriculums designed around the state educational standards for their specific grade level, but their instruction time is cut in half because she has to cover both, Kosek said, calling it an injustice to the students.

Roger Nehls, oversight commission chairman, said he has some sympathy for the situation but pointed out that the teacher contract limits the number of students that can be assigned to any given class.

In the elementary, it’s 24 students per class, with the exception that a 25th can be added if the teacher is given an additional stipend, Bagnola said. If the district could have larger classes, the split classes might be avoided, Nehls said.

Kosek said there are two fifth- grade classes at Harding, one with 24 students and the other with 22. A third class could be created, taking the 11 out of her classroom and giving each fifth grade class 19 students, she said. That’s a more desirable number, she said, pointing out that fifth grade is being heavily targeted for improvement this year because of its poor performance on the 2009 report card, both in Youngstown and across the state.

Bagnola said split classes are “a very questionable, if not unsound, educational practice.”

Nehls said that the commission has pushed and prodded for cuts but said it hasn’t dictated where they should be made, leaving that up to the administration and school board. This is a staffing issue, he said, one that could likely be addressed by the incoming state Academic Distress Commission.

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