More than a month into the school year, teachers and administrators are feeling the effects of budget cuts in the classroom. In OPB's series on Oregon schools that we're calling "Learning with Less," we're checking in regularly with educators and families with school-aged kids.
We'll again visit David Douglas High – Oregon's largest high school. As Rob Manning reports, teachers there are trying to adjust to bigger class sizes.
School board members in David Douglas did what many Oregon school districts did to cut this year's budget: they laid off teachers. With fewer teachers to go around, administrators had little choice but to squeeze more students into fewer classes.
The last time OPB checked in with David Douglas health teacher, Angela Nurre, she was concerned about the bigger classes.
"Just worried, worried that it's going to be a lot. It seems overwhelming, to be honest."
This health class, for instance, has 40 students in it – about ten to twelve more kids than classes had last year. Nurre says she had hoped to emphasize small group discussions, as she did with smaller classes, last year.
"I've definitely -- have changed. I'm doing more quiet book work, less group work, more 'here's your assignment, no, don't work with a partner, get it done, let's turn it in'."
Nurre says she's cutting back on group discussions – to limit opportunities for things to get off-track.
"Because there definitely is a lot more talking, disruptions – 'I gotta go to the bathroom, I need water, I need this, I'm getting my backpack work, I gotta go check this...'."
She says she wishes she didn't have to focus so much on classroom management.
"There's so many other things now that are taking the forefront, and that's frustrating, as someone who wants to be a good teacher."
Other teachers say they have continued to use strategies like small group discussions. But they acknowledge that transitioning from one activity to the next takes more time with 40 students.
Teachers differ on whether student behavior is worse, or better, overall. Nurre's colleague, Jennifer Buscher says students who are inclined to test teachers, or break the rules, can do so more easily.
"Kids are able to get away with things that they wouldn't ordinarily be able to get away with, because we would be able to see it, but can't observe everything that's going on. So – school rule: no cell phones. We've got kids using cell phones, and we're probably missing it," Buscher says.
In some cases, sub-dividing classes just leads to different problems. Aubrey Wiese is a David Douglas sophomore. She’s in a ceramics class where the teacher has more students than pottery wheels.
"There's 42 students in my class, so he had us split it up, and now, we can't go on the wheels, while half the other class is on it. Some students might not make it onto the wheel, and learn the things that he intends for us to learn." Wiese says.
Kelly Holboke teaches Health and PE. In her PE classes, she recently had to split kids up – and could really only watch the students doing the higher-risk activity.
"Well, we can't watch the kids doing the fitness activity and watch the kids doing archery at the same time. Which one is the safety issue? Archery, so you're paying attention more to those kids," Holboke explains.
So, what about the students Holboke isn’t watching? Are they continuing to exercise?
"Probably not. So activity-wise, the level has highly decreased in the PE classes because of equipment, space...."
And because the student-teacher ratio has reached into the low-60's for some gym classes.
Teachers and administrators wonder whether classroom goals – activity in PE, understanding nutrition from health class – might slip. Principal John Bier says standardized test scores jumped last year. He credits strong relationships between teachers and students -- keeping those ties could be a challenge.
"If you don't have that connection with some kids every day, and just kind of check in, you start losing them academically and behaviorally, too – because that personal connection really makes a difference in the classroom. I think we're going to see results come out of that, sooner or later."
National studies have found an academic benefit from small class sizes – but those studies tend to focus on elementary, rather than high schools.
David Douglas health teacher, Angela Nurre, has the test results from the first unit, she just finished. They're not as good as last year.
"You know, the smart students always get the A's'. But it seemed like I had a handful of A's, a couple of B's, but then mostly D's and F's. That's definitely a reflection of how I'm teaching, and the students didn't do well, and that's really frustrating on my part."
Her principal, John Bier, says he's been hearing from other teachers – some who've been teaching a lot longer than Nurre – who say the increased demands are wearing them out, seven weeks into the school year.
Find more from Rob Manning's series "Learning With Less" on our education page.