Oakland public school enrollment is down by more than 5 percent over this time last year, but you'd never know it from looking at Wayne Brooks' sixth-period American government class.
On a recent day at Oakland Technical High School, students filled all 31 of his classroom's desks. Four latecomers stood near the windows, two more sat on tables across the room, and one sat at Brooks' desk. That was a light day.
Although the class has 43 students, Brooks' classroom holds just 31 desks. The teacher could get more if he requested them, but his classroom can't accommodate any. "Where am I going to put more desks?" Brooks asked. "I'd be putting desks on top of desks."
To senior Bao Truong, this isn't just a matter of comfort. He believes that overcrowding undermines students' efforts to improve their grades. "Everyone says, 'Oh, Oakland students, they don't learn as well,'" he said. "But everyone's trying to learn. No one wants to stand."
Overcrowding is not a new problem for the Oakland Unified School District, but Brooks can't recall when it's ever been this bad in his 31 years at Tech. "In past years, I've had one, maybe two classes oversized," he said. "This year, I've had consistency: All are at or beyond the district maximum." Four of his five classes are beyond the 32-student contractual limit for high school classes, he said, and the 43 students in his sixth period are the most he has ever taught.
Based upon the number of complaints received by Oakland's teachers union, Executive Director Bruce Colwell said he believes the overcrowding problem is worse than in years past. Colwell said teachers have filed dozens of reports of overcrowding. One of these was filed jointly by thirty teachers at Skyline High -- all of whom were teaching at least one too-full class.
How is this possible when student enrollment has declined over the last five years? The answer stems from the imprecise way Oakland estimates the number of teachers it needs each year. This year, on the day before school began, the district estimated that it was short 52 teachers -- in part because it had laid off hundreds at the end of the last school year, some of whose credentials didn't meet the standards set by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act.
But with the start of the 2003-2004 school year, more students than expected enrolled, and the district soon realized it was about eighty teachers short. "It's hard when we don't know how many kids are going to be there," said Joe Lorono, who oversees Oakland's recruitment and teacher hiring efforts. Lorono added that the district is still trying to hire almost thirty more teachers, particularly for math, science, special education, and bilingual Spanish classes.
Associate Superintendent Sue Woehrle said that if the district's student population is divided by the number of its teachers, the overall ratio is still within the teachers' contract limit. She attributed the reports of class-size problems to the way counselors at individual schools have divided their students among classes. Some classes are over their limits because others are well below theirs, she said.
But Colwell of the union called Woehrle's reasoning "at best, disingenuous." He surmises that the district may not be hiring enough teachers to meet demand. Last spring, the state took over the bankrupt Oakland district and loaned it $65 million. Colwell believes that the district's state-appointed administrator, Randolph Ward, is more concerned with repaying that loan than meeting the needs of Oakland's students and teachers. "Their only interest is getting the state's money back," he said, predicting that the district will hire a string of substitutes to fill the vacant posts because this approach saves money. "It makes you look like a hero," he said, "but basically you've taken the money out of the students' education."
The union filed two grievances with the district at the end of September. One was for the high number of overcrowded classes; the other was for the extra pay teachers were supposed to receive for taking on more students. After a month passed without a response, the union threatened to take its grievances to arbitration. In mid-November, the district's labor relations office asked the union to resubmit its list of teachers who had overcrowded classes last year. "They didn't do anything until we threatened arbitration, and then all of a sudden we got a response," Colwell said.
Skyline High School biology teacher Michael Zak started the school year with five classes over the limit. Students filled all 32 of his desks and most of the lab stools at the back of his classroom. "They were wall to wall," he recalled. "It was pretty bad." So Zak took on a sixth class -- one more than the normal limit for a high school teacher -- to thin out the number of students in his classes. Even after spreading his students across one more class, Zak said he has as many as 36 students in one class and that some still sit on stools. "Most of us make a real effort to do our best on a daily basis," he said. "But speaking for myself, I just haven't been able to deliver what my students really deserve."
Students share Zak's assessment. Oakland Tech senior Truong said students in his classes can't always get their questions answered because there are too many hands going up at once. It's physically challenging, he added, to take notes for nearly an hour without a desk to rest his notebook on. "When you hold the book up to write, your ink won't work," Truong said. "When you bend over, your back hurts."
Large class sizes also create discipline problems. In fact, a boy and a girl in Brooks' government class got into a fistfight last month over a desk. In the commotion, the girl was stabbed in the face with her own pen, which just missed her eye, and left a wound requiring five stitches.
To hire more teachers requires more money, which is hard to find these days in the Oakland district. Making matters worse, the drop in enrollment this year means Oakland has less money with which to hire teachers, as the district's largest single source of annual state revenue is tied to the number of students who are enrolled and attending class. Woehrle said that schools must boost student attendance rates to generate funds for more teachers. Oakland Tech, she noted, has historically had one of the district's lowest attendance rates.
But Brooks said he believes this logic is backward. "You get all these numbers about who's not coming to school," he said. "Well, what are you doing for those who do come to school? ... If they know they're not going to have a desk coming in here, and they know that they can't work on a table, why come?"
Many students are asking the same question. "They just care that we're here," said Tech senior Josh Gjersand. "As long as we're here, they're still getting money. It doesn't matter if we're comfortable or not. ... If you don't have a proper work space, it's very hard to learn. If you have to jerk around to look at the board, it makes it very hard to work and be productive."
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