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Union Claims Highest Number of Oversize Classes in Decade

Thursday, September 22, 2011 - 01:12 PM

3:11 p.m. | Updated The number of overcrowded classes in New York is the largest in 10 years, according to a survey conducted by the teachers union and released on Thursday.
As a result of attrition, budget cuts and increased enrollment in some areas of the city, nearly 7,000 classes are over their contractual limits this year, the survey, by the United Federation of Teachers, found. That figure exceeds last year’s number by almost 1,000.
The union says that about 256,000 students, roughly a quarter of total enrollment, spend at least part of the school day in an overcrowded class.
As is often the case, high schools in Queens are most affected. In a borough where many students attend zoned high schools, which must accept all students in their neighborhoods, about 2,600 classes have more than 34 students.
Elementary and middle schools in District 27 in Queens have 212 oversize classes — the most of any district in the city.
The teachers union’s contract limits classes for kindergartners to 25 students. For grades one to six, the maximum is 32 students; for middle schools it is 33; and for high schools it is 34.
The union can file a grievance against the city for exceeding those limits.
The union’s survey was taken on the sixth day of school, and the number of crowded classrooms is likely to change — perhaps substantially — in the coming weeks as schools change students’ schedules and, in some cases, hire more teachers.
Official figures for public school enrollment are not yet available.
Speaking in Lower Manhattan outside Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, which has 104 classes with too many students, the president of the union, Michael Mulgrew, said the increase in class sizes would only worsen if the schools must endure another cut to their budgets next year. That prospect has loomed as the city’s budget situation has deteriorated.
“We have to stop this craziness,” Mr. Mulgrew said.
“They have kids in this school who are starting lunch at 10 a.m.,” he said, referring to Murry Bergtraum, which has fewer students this year but has also lost teachers and has larger classes.
Several teachers at the school said one method of reducing class sizes so far was to shift a handful of students into Advanced Placement classes, whether or not they wanted to take them.
“We have one of the smallest populations of students in the school’s history,” said John Elfrank-Dana, the leader of the school’s union chapter. “Yet thanks to budget austerity, we have the most oversize classes in memory.”
Frank Thomas, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Education, said the department was still completing its own class-size numbers and did expect them to rise as a consequence of state and federal budget cuts.
“But we believe that getting effective teachers into every classroom is the most important steppingstone to student success, and we will continue to work toward that goal,” Mr. Thomas said.
Officials at some of the schools that the union cited as particularly crowded said they were still adjusting their class lists, and those lists often do not keep pace with the daily changes.
At Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx, though the school’s register shows 270 oversize classes, one teacher, who did not want to be identified, said most classes were not over the contractual limit.
That would not mean there was room to spare, or a seat to be found. Lehman’s building can accommodate 3,500 students, but for years enrollment has topped 4,000.
“All of my classes are full,” said Jae Maree Marty, a senior at Lehman. “I have to go to class early to get a seat.”
Leonie Haimson, the executive director of an advocacy group, Class Size Matters, said class sizes had risen “for the fourth year in a row.”
Some research shows that smaller classes can be particularly beneficial for elementary school students, although other studies have concluded that the benefits of smaller classes have been overstated.
Since 2008, elementary schools’ average class size has risen to 23.7 students from 21.8, the city’s data shows.
In January, the union sued the department, claiming that it had ignored a state mandate to lower class sizes, despite receiving about $750 million for this purpose. In July, an appeals court dismissed the suit.

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