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AAPS Documents Reveal Middle and High School Classes Have 40+ Students

by P.D. Lesko

Between 2003 and 2010, while total enrollment in Ann Arbor’s middle and high schools fell, average class sizes increased significantly, and so have actual class sizes, resulting in classrooms stuffed with 10, 12 and sometimes even 20 students more than the District’s class size targets. Class size targets for 2011 were 23-25 students in grades K-2, 26-30 students in grades 3-5, and an average of 30 students in grades 6-12. Middle school enrollment fell from 3,639 students to 3,406 students, according to District enrollment records. Likewise, enrollment in the District’s high schools has fallen. In 2003, the AAPS enrolled 5,410 students in five high schools. In 2010-2011, there were 5,227 students enrolled in five high schools (tip o’ the keyboard to Ruth Kraut.).

Abigal Alwin (pictured, right) teaches orchestra at Clague Middle School, on Ann Arbor’s north side. Alwin teaches six classes per day. The District’s 2011 target enrollment at the middle and high school level is 30 students in each class. October 2011 actual enrollment data revealed that Alwin’s 2nd and 7th period classes, however, contained 42 and 45 students, respectively. In fact, four of Abigail Alwin’s six classes exceeded the District’s stated “target” enrollment level. With 201 students in her six classes, Abigail Alwin has the second largest teaching load of any middle school teacher in the AAPS and, in fact, the second largest teaching load of any teacher in the AAPS.

The prize for the largest teaching load goes to Alwin’s colleague James McArthur, who teaches band at Clague. McArthur teaches 297 students. Those 297 students, put into classrooms that met the “target” enrollment goal—30 students per class—would just about fill 10 classes per day, classes enough to employ two band teachers.

Mary Shymanski (pictured, left) teaches English, history and geography at Clague. In October 2011, Shymanski had 38 students in her 6th period social studies class and after Alwin and McArthur, one of the highest total teaching loads at Clague.

The over-enrollment at Clague extended to math classes, as well. As of October 2011, Steve Hollis had 40 students in his 7th period Alegbra I class. Colleague Ellen Hopkins, likewise, had 40 students in her Algebra I class. In classrooms with 40 students, then, Hopkins and Hollis are each teaching 10-14 more students than District officials led parents to believe would be placed in the classrooms when “target” numbers were released to the public in 2011.

Both Hollis and Hopkins also had sections of math with 39 students enrolled.

In fact, actual enrollment data reveal that  none of Ann Arbor’s middle schools met stated “target” enrollment goals in 100 percent of the classes offered. Clague Middle School students, data reveal, suffer from the most consistent over-crowding in classrooms, as well as the highest number of students in over-enrolled middle school classes.

Similarly, none of Ann Arbor’s high schools met “target” enrollment goals in 100 percent of the classes offered. Huron High School students, data reveal, suffer from the most consistent over-crowding in classrooms. In 35 percent of that school’s classes, the “target” enrollment goal of 30 students was exceeded, often by as many as 5-14 students.

Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia Green walked into a hornet’s nest when she arrived in Ann Arbor. A majority of Ann Arbor Board of Education members, lead by Board President Deb Mexicotte, infuriated taxpayers and parents alike by arbitrarily hiking the District’s pay for its Sup. by $70,000, to $245,000 per year. Ann Arbor’s school district has 16,000 students and a Superintendent who takes home a paycheck as large as a district leader who oversees a system double the size of Ann Arbor’s. Then, Green and the Board of Education members further irked the folks who pay the bills when they decided to give hefty raises to Green’s subordinates. Salaries of Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and Legal Services Dave Comsa and Deputy Superintendent of Operations Robert Allen were bumped up to $140,000 each. Comsa’s pay was hiked 14.7 percent and Allen scored a 7.2 percent raise.

Comments in response to a story posted to AnnArbor.com concerning the December 2011 pay raises for AAPS administrators were blunt:

“Words cannot express how disgusted I am by this move of the Superintendent and majority of the school board. We need to cut dollars and you give raises to an already top heavy administration? Classes are overcrowded -33 plus in middle and highschool; custodians are almost eligiable for food stamps their pay was cut so much; teachers took a pay cut; lunch room staff was privatized, bussing was cut with the poorest kids walking the farthest, and you approve a double digit raise?? You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

“What a bunch of malarky! There is currently a huge upheaval at Balas in regard to assistants and secretaries. Why? Because they’re tired of doing the work of the administrators. So, what does the AAPS Board do? They let the assistants go and give the administrators a raise. And after 3 consecutive years of teachers taking pay cuts. That is the height of hypocrisy.”

Three months later, in March 2012, Dr. Green announced at a Board of Education meeting that she intended to eliminate the achievement gap between white and non-white students in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The Executive Summary of Green’s plan was full of educational jargon and jingoisms. The plan, which Green said would take 12 months to flesh out and implement, calls for “clear district content standards; equity; accountability; professional development; parent and community engagement; student engagement; quality early childhood programs; addressing barriers to learning and allocation of resources, and Student Intervention and Support Services (SISS).”

Board of Education Trustee Simone Lightfoot expressed concerns about “flowery language; lack of specific academic supports such as support for 8th grade algebra; too much emphasis on how adults can grow and learn and not enough focus on students; and a lack of timelines.”

Dr. Green’s proposed plan to eliminate the achievement gap includes nothing about class size reduction.

By 2010, all but 15 states had laws restricting the number of students that may be included in a general education classroom, in some or all grades. Michigan is one of those 15 states. Why have the majority of U.S. states implemented laws restricting K-12 class sizes?

In 2000, the federal government began funding class size reduction programs (Title II Part A funding) based on studies that clearly demonstrated the benefits of smaller classes in reducing and even eliminating achievement gaps. The biggest and most credible of those studies, Tennessee’s statewide Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, or STAR, project, begun in the late 1970s. Researchers found that the learning gains students made in classes of 13 to 17 students persisted long after the students moved back into average-size classes. In addition, the Tennessee researchers found, poor and African-American students appeared to reap the greatest learning gains in smaller classes. After kindergarten, the gains black students made in smaller classes were typically twice as large as those for whites. Follow-up studies through the years have found the students who had been in small classes in their early years had better academic and personal outcomes throughout their school years and beyond.

Likewise, a 2001 evaluation of the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, class size reduction program by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that a five-year-old program of class-size reduction in Wisconsin resulted in higher achievement for children living in poverty. Research from Columbia University Teachers College in New York showed the context of class-size reduction can affect its success in improving student achievement.

Why, 14 years after studies definitively demonstrated the benefits of smaller classes in reducing achievement gaps, are the public and the Ann Arbor Board of Education getting served up a load of “flowery language” and “lack of specifics” by Dr. Green and her staff? One reason could be that the members of the Board of Education haven’t the first clue about how many children are actually in classrooms throughout the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

BOE Trusteee Andy Thomas confirmed this in an email. He responded: “The Board does not routinely monitor or track enrollment by classroom throughout the District.  It is not the role of the Board to engage in this level of management.  That is why we employ a superintendent.  Our role is to establish overall policy, to approve the budget and to work with the superintendent to set the overall goals and priorities for the District.  We trust Superintendent Green and her administrative team to monitor class size throughout the District, and to make whatever adjustments are necessary.”

Trustee Simone Lightfoot, a consistent advocate of transparency, accountability and a vocal supporter of the need to close Ann Arbor’s gaping achievement gap, responded via email, as well. Unlike Trustee Thomas, Lightfoot writes, “I received actual enrollment data annually.” While Thomas implies tracking actual enrollment to check whether targets are being met would qualify as micromanagement of district staff, Simone Lightfoot disagrees. She says, “I was aware of some of the concerns raised related to enrollment number differences at each of the high schools (an the other buildings as well)….I fully expect the administration to stick to our targets and resource distribution goals as they consider contractual obligations,  day-to-day operational insights and making recommendations to the board.”

That information is nowhere on the District’s web page. This means district officials can hide behind “target” enrollment numbers and easily misinterpreted teacher-student ratios. Meanwhile, frustrated parents remain in the dark concerning actual enrollment numbers, with only anecdotal reports from their own children, and other parents.

District officials faced a firestorm of criticism from parents in September and October 2011 concerning overcrowded classes. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by A2Politico, AAPS officials released parent emails sent on the subject of over-crowding. Parent emails to District officials paint pictures of noisy, crowded classrooms, and students without books or desks. The emails also reveal that District’s teachers are openly refusing to accommodate the additional students, but rather have told parents they will scale back on the quality and quantity of course assignments.

As one parent wrote to Alice Chamberlain, Assistant Director, Employment Services in an email dated October 6, 2011: “The additional teaching load that teachers in the Humanities program [at Huron] are carrying means that the writing component of the course must suffer enormously….Writing assignments are being cancelled because Humanities teachers simply do not have the time to guide students through longer paper assignments, nor do those teachers have the time and resources to comment on and grade those assignments.”

A PTSO board member at Huron High School emailed both Superintendent Patricia Green and Board of Trustee President Deb Mexicotte. The PTSO official writes, “Huron has 22 teachers with a student load of +150. Classes that usually had 27 or 28 students now have over 33 students.” The PTSO representative then goes on to state the obvious, “The large class sizes are affecting the quality of what’s happening in the classes.” The PTSO representative writes in her email that “several” teachers at Huron decided to deal with the ballooning class sizes by refusing to assign work that would need to be corrected, or by assigning shorter papers.

A2Politico also made requests to Ann Arbor Public Schools officials for the actual enrollment data. The requests were denied and the information withheld until A2Politico filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails sent between administrators in response to parent complaints of over-crowded classrooms at Huron High School. Those emails revealed that AAPS administrators not only had actual enrollment data, but were sharing actual enrollment data among themselves to fend off parent complaints.

That data, however, were at no time shared with the general public until now.

Ann Arbor’s school district faces a $14-$16 million dollar deficit this year, $6 million dollars of which is a structural deficit associated with the construction of Skyline High School. The public supported and financed the construction of Skyline to ease crowding in the other high schools, particularly Huron and Pioneer.

Actual student enrollment data reveal that Skyline’s enrollment numbers were often well below the “target” enrollment level of 30 students. While Clague Middle School math teachers faced 40 students in their classrooms, Skyline teacher Daniel Neaton had 21 and 18 students enrolled, respectively, in his Math Analysis classes. While Mary Shymanski jammed 38 students into her social studies class, Skyline teacher Ashley Ducker’s 1st period social studies class had just 20 students, 10 students below the stated “target” enrollment number.

BOE Trustee Andy Thomas, speaking on behalf of his colleagues on the Board of Education, commented on the range of class sizes, pointing a finger in the direction of the Ann Arbor Education Association, the local teacher’s union. “We do not find it surprising that there is a range of class size, both within a particular school and between different schools.  There are numerous reasons why this might occur, including unexpected increases or decreases in enrollment at a particular school, the trade-off between splitting a particular class into two small classes (requiring an additional teacher) versus continuing with a single class with one teacher, the availability (or lack of availability) of a teacher’s aide, allowing a few additional students to enroll in an elective class when it is not feasible to add a second section, etc.  All this must be done within the structure of our existing contract with the teachers’ union.”

At Community High School, one might assume that a total enrollment of 420 students results in a majority of classes that fail to meet the “target” enrollment number of 30 students per class. Actual enrollment data reveal that this is not, in fact, the case. Community High School teachers had fewer under-enrolled classes than their colleagues at Skyline, and higher total student teaching loads. Community High School, according to 2011 drop-out and graduation data released by the state of Michigan, has the lowest drop-out rate, overall, of all of Ann Arbor’s high schools. Community also has the highest percentage of graduates who are deemed college ready, again according to data from the Michigan Department of Education.

What is clear from the actual enrollment data is that Skyline classrooms are chronically under-enrolled and classrooms at Huron and Pioneer are still not close to totally meeting the “target” enrollment number, four years after Skyline’s opening. About 30 percent of the classes at Huron have more than 30 students. Meanwhile, at Pioneer High School actual enrollment data reveal that about 40 percent of the classes exceed the “target” enrollment number of 30 students per class by 3-5 students per class.

A2Politico asked Dr. Green, as well as the Ann Arbor BOE Trustees whether they would support the annual release of actual enrollment data to the public.

Trustee Andy Thomas argues that while the Board “favors transparency,” he argues against mandating the regular release of the information because compiling the enrollment data would be “time-consuming” and “labor intensive.” Trustee Lightfoot, conversely, would advocate for the annual release of actual enrollment numbers. “Absolutely without question I support such disclosure.  In fact, some of the detail we have now provided for your request would be beneficial to add as a part of our standard reporting template both for the board and the public.  Since joining the board, I have never ceased advocating for more disclosure and transparency, greater communication, more respectful responsiveness and ensuring our actual outcomes match our words and promises.”

Trustee Thomas appears unaware that District officials compile the enrollment data for their own use (as well as state and federal use), and in several instances emails show, used the data to fend off parent complaints concerning over-crowded high school classrooms in Fall 2011.

What is made clear by the analysis of the actual enrollment data is this: without actual enrollment numbers per school, per teacher, per class, parents, taxpayers and even the teachers themselves have no clue whether a school district is meeting stated “target” enrollment goals more often than not. The Board of Education members have no clue whether or with what frequency target enrollment numbers presented to them are being met. Parents with children at schools where officials are doing a particularly poor job of meeting “target” enrollment numbers who had regular access to actual enrollment data would be much able to better advocate for redistribution of district resources, including funding and teachers. 

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