GUSD combo classes ahead?

– Full-time teachers in Gilroy Unified School District have a
lower student-to-teacher ratio than at least nine other area school
districts from Salinas to San Jose.
GILROY – Full-time teachers in Gilroy Unified School District have a lower student-to-teacher ratio than at least nine other area school districts from Salinas to San Jose.

Gilroy classrooms had 17.15 students per full-time teacher last school year, a figure generously smaller than the 20-to-1 ratio mandated by the state for kindergarten through third-grade. That fact opens the door for using combination classes to help the district reduce spending in lean budget times.

Combination classes place students from typically two grade levels, such as kindergarten and first grade, in a classroom with one teacher.

The cost-efficient, but controversial practice allows districts to reduce spending by using fewer teachers per school site. Instead of splitting, for instance, a first-grade class with 22 kids into two first-grade classes of 11 students, second-grade classrooms with less than 20 students would absorb the excess first-graders.

In a time when many districts have more than one combination class at each school site to help meet class-size requirements, only one class in the GUSD currently uses a combined format.

“If we did what these other districts are doing, we could potentially save about $1 million or thereabouts,” Trustee Jaime Rosso said.

That level of savings has added significance given the $2 million the GUSD needs to trim over the next year and a half if Gov. Gray Davis’ proposed budget cuts get implemented.

GUSD officials stressed that the information presented Tuesday night, at a school board study session, is based on preliminary research and needs to go before the teachers union before any staffing decisions are made.

However, Superintendent Edwin Diaz has acknowledged that the budget crisis does potentially put all topics “on the table.” In December, Diaz froze hiring for all open positions. The district will also hold back this spring on early teacher contract signings, useful tools for recruiting low-in-supply, high-in-demand qualified teachers.

The Gilroy Teachers Association opposes the use of combination classes as educationally unsound. Critics say that randomly combining students from two grade levels makes it hard for teachers to plan appropriate lessons, especially given the academic standards the state requires to be taught at each grade level.

“If there is a teacher who prefers combination classes, they’re going to be very hard to find,” GTA President Michelle Nelson said.

Parents have given combination classes mixed reviews, according to Assistant Superintendent Jacki Horejs.

Horejs says that during her time as principal in another Bay Area district, parents of the younger students tended to feel their children were getting accelerated while parents of the older students felt their children were doing too much review.

If GUSD were to use more combination classes, Horejs hopes a format that places students of similar ability levels together would be used.

Nelson believes the district should only bring the idea of using more combination classes to the negotiating table if the state cuts its class-size reduction spending.

The district says, however, that class-size reduction funding does not cover all expenses related to putting one teacher in classrooms for every 20 children.

According to Diaz, the state is looking at making its class-size reduction program more lenient. The law requires each kindergarten through third-grade classroom to have only 20 students per teacher, but the state may raise that figure if an entire school or district has a 20-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio.

“We did some very quick calculations and for us that would save us about $500,000, but that would still have to be negotiated (with the teachers union),” Diaz said.