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Volume 77, Number 14 | September 5 - 11, 2007

A special Villager supplement.
Back to School

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Bayard Rustin Principal John Angelet talked about class-size reduction last week.

With new funds, small is beautiful, schools agree

By Chris Lombardi

On the Tuesday before classes began, Bayard Rustin High School was a quiet mob scene, with parents clustered in one line, their wan freshmen in tow. Then, in small groups, they showed up at the principal’s office, bearing folders full of documents. A young Chinese woman translated for her mom, as the administrator told the mother that her daughter was enrolled.

“Next Tuesday, she comes here,” the administrator said, tucking the sheet of transfer materials into a folder. “Not today. Next Tuesday.”

In the next room the school’s principal, John Angelet, gestured at what he called “the madness.” Every fall this happens, he said: Floods of students make their way to Rustin, students who were not factored into the school’s carefully planned reconstruction, its transition from a huge, factory-like school to a set of small “learning communities.”

He extended his arms, in a classic Mediterranean gesture: “How are we supposed to preserve the purity of our reforms?”

By “purity,” Angelet was referring most to class size. He acknowledged that this term, at least, Rustin has a little more money to help it happen.

Rustin, located in Chelsea on W. 18th St., is among the dozen or so local schools receiving extra “class-size reduction” (C.S.R.) funds this term under the Contracts for Excellence, which is bringing the city’s schools their first direct share of funds ($258 million this year) from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (C.F.E.) lawsuit that was filed back in 1993. Reducing class size, one of C.F.E.’s primary goals, has been a watchword of parents, education advocates and principals for at least 15 years. The Department of Education itself wants to ensure that no class has more than 27 students.

Three local Chelsea principals — from Rustin, the Museum School on W. 17th St. and P.S. 11 (William Harris Elementary School) on W. 21st St. — spoke about how they plan to use the extra C.S.R. funds allotted them this year. While all stressed that keeping class size intimate was crucial to success, they also cautioned that many ingredients, and a complex process, goes into doing right by their students.

Small is beautiful

Research over the past 20 years has produced a consensus rare in education circles: that reducing class size, especially in the lower grades, is the single best measure a school can take to improve children’s learning.

“Reducing class size is one of the most effective ways of improving results,” said Dr. Pedro Noguera, director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at New York University.

Many educators point to a multi-year study, published in 1998, which looked at more than 6,000 Tennessee children over a period of 10 years. The study found that children who spent their first five school years (K-4) in classes of no more than 15 students experienced “substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies,” and that this lasted even after students rejoined “normal” sized classes. In addition, “the effect of small class size on the achievement of minority children was initially about double that observed for majority children,” the study found, a result intriguing to educators in a diverse city like New York.

Thus, parents and education advocates across the country have made reducing class size a major theme, especially in inner-city schools. While advocates dispute whether D.O.E.’s current efforts are the best or most equitable way to honor the goals of the C.F.E. lawsuit, the local schools below are already on the move with their C.S.R. funds, pleased to have avoided, at least for now, the constant budget cuts of previous years.

Flush with funding

At William Harris Elementary, a zoned elementary school that focuses on the arts, the C.S.R. money meant that Principal Bob Bender didn’t have to skimp on his growing program, which includes full-time music, visual art and theater instructors working with nearly 500 students from kindergarten to fifth grade.

Asked about the $202,000 in “class-size reduction” money he received this year, he nearly laughed.

“I’ve already spent it,” Bender said. “I opened one more kindergarten class, hiring a teacher and setting up the classroom.” He was also able to hire two additional teachers.

“Our whole focus is small group, because we know that it works,” said Bender. None of the classes in any of his six grades has more than 22 students, he said, and all have at least two teachers, one an “intervention” teacher, who helps students who struggle with basic reading and math skills. And each grade also has a “gifted” program, though all levels share many of the school’s resources.

The approach seems to have brought results: Last year, most of Harris’s fourth-graders had reading scores at grade level or above, with nearly 80 percent making the grade in math. With that success came more students, many from outside the district. The funds from the C.F.E. lawsuit couldn’t have come at a better time, he said.

“We were able to keep the full roster of arts instructors as full-time positions,” said Bender. “Without it, we would have had to make at least one part time.” Such choices, usually part of the agony of every budget year, were blessedly absent this time, he said.

“Most principals spend their time figuring out what to cut,” said Bender. “Right now, I’m the opposite. I am actually looking for another teacher, someone to spend the extra money on!”

Cash helps coaching

The Museum School’s C.S.R. strategy is different. Unlike other Chelsea middle schools like the Lab School for Collaborative Studies — which, like P.S. 11, used its Contracts for Excellence funds to hire additional teachers — the Museum School’s $200,000 grant is part of a pilot program for “class-size reduction coaching,” to help develop new strategies.

Schools chosen for the program, D.O.E. spokesperson Debra Wexler explained, fit two criteria: They were operating at less than 100 percent capacity (and thus had room to play with) and they had some troubling academic deficits. While no one has notified Principal Dusty Miller why Museum School was chosen, the need to include rigorous Regents-level instruction in the school’s unique, museum-centered curriculum, the school’s current average class size of 33 and its 20 percent pass rate on the mathematics Regents do form a picture worth working on, she said.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Miller, who added that she had seen the contrast in performance with smaller class size. “Especially in math,” she said, “and those ‘ramp-up’ literacy programs.”

results at Rustin

Bayard Rustin Principal Angelet knows all about agonizing choices, and the sacrifices necessary to reduce class size. He hopes the new Contract for Excellence funds will help him avoid such choices, as they did for Principal Bender at William Harris. With a school at 107 percent capacity, according to Insideschools.org, the nonprofit education watchdog group, keeping things small and intimate takes every trick in the book, including breaking the school up into pieces.

Five years ago, Rustin was one of those huge neighborhood high schools, often cited in the C.F.E. lawsuit, where many students fell behind and never caught up. Now, each floor of the building contains its own “learning community”: The Institute of Media and Writing, Art and Music Academy, Institute of Mathematical and Biomedical Sciences and the International School of Business. Each has its own “principal,” technically Angelet’s assistant principals. “They know every single kid,” said Angelet. “Not just by name but who they are, what they need.”

In addition, he said, every single one of those assistants also teaches classes every day, which is one of the school’s built-in C.S.R. strategies. In some programs, like Art and Music, class size can be as low as 20, “but that’s very expensive,” said Angelet. Over all, his school fights to keep class sizes below 28 students, even though the legal maximum is 34.

In a school like Rustin, with its $11 million-plus budget, Angelet said, the $500,000 in extra Contract for Excellence funds “doesn’t go as far as you think.” Still, he hopes it will help him avoid reliving some past sacrifices: like the year he took teachers who had been in non-teaching “compensatory time” positions — such as administering records and coordinating schedules — and put them back in the classroom.

“I got 14 full-time positions that way,” said Angelet, with the wry smile of a TV hero who has just cracked a safe with a can opener.

The “smallness” now at Rustin is slowly having positive results, he said: Attendance increased last year to 85 percent, and test scores also rose, if more slowly. But just as at P.S. 11, that progress can be threatened by a flood of new students, like those on the Tuesday morning before classes started.

“We turn no one away,” Angelet said, but each new student dilutes the prized smallness.

And even though the school’s master plan is for a gradual reduction, down to 1,650 by next fall, with all the new admissions, “we’re almost at 1,900 right now!” Angelet said. All of which makes “class-size reduction,” and the fight for more classroom space, more than a budgetary goal.

“We have to be advocates,” said Angelet. “We have no choice.”

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