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Learning With Less: Too Small, Too Big, Schools Seeking 'Just Right'

OPB’s series on school budget cuts called “Learning with Less,” has introduced us to educators, students, and families  adjusting to bigger classes in the public schools. But dealing with budget cuts is complicated.

Rob Manning reports on why one class has remained small, even as budget cuts have forced changes elsewhere at the same school.


Rochelle Duarte is a fifth grader in the Spanish immersion program at Bridger Elementary. She’s one of 13 students in the class. So Rochelle gets called on a lot. Here she’s asked to conjugate Spanish verbs.

Rochelle Duarte: “Los alumnos escriberan una lista … “

Rob Manning / OPB

Rochelle’s class wasn’t always small. 29 students inaugurated the Bridger immersion program, as kindergartners. But more than half the students left, by the time they reached 5th grade.

Caitlin Shelman is the teacher.
“This class is incredibly small, but I know it’s not normal, and I know I’ll never have it again, so I’m enjoying it while I have it,” Shelman says.

Caitlin Shelman teaches a 5th grade Spanish immersion class at Bridger Elementary School.

Rob Manning / OPB

If there was another way to teach these kids, Bridger principal Brenda Fox says she would have done it. Fox supervises the budget for the Spanish program and Bridger’s K-to-8 neighborhood program.

A 13-to-1 student-teacher ratio is expensive. The higher the ratio, the more cost-effective it gets. But Fox can’t just add 5th graders who aren’t up to speed in Spanish.

She studied blending the small 5th grade with the 4th grade, but she says that class would’ve been too big. So she kept looking.

“What if we had specialists teach for a period, then moving the kids around and having a reading coach come in and teach. Having me teach? We even looked at that. There was no way that we could provide the kids with a high-quality, sustainable classroom without going small like that,” Fox says.

Rob Manning / OPB

Teacher Caitlin Shelman says it’s easier to track individual students, and then keep them speaking Spanish, when there are fewer of them.

“Last year, I taught middle school actually, at Hosford Middle School immersion, and I had 33 in a lot of my periods, and there’s just a huge difference in just the amount of time I can spend with each kid, when I have a smaller class.”

Shelman says the small classes make for closer relationships  — not just between teacher and student, but among the students, too.

“The kids end up knowing each other so well at this point, that they’re almost like brothers and sisters. Sometimes, certain behaviors stand out more in a small class.”

Leslie Dailey, Rochelle’s mom, says the closeness can create friction.

Rob Manning / OPB

“Not having a large peer group can be an issue, particularly when you’ve been in the same group since kindergarten. Sometimes there’s some personality things that can get in there, and make things interesting.”

Dailey says small classes also have fewer resources, just like small schools.

“It’s hard to offer as much, when you have a smaller group of kids.”

Teacher, Caitlin Shelman says she’s had to scrounge for supplies, but says smaller is definitely better.

“I don’t think there’s really a downside to having a small class. I know that teachers would be screaming, if they heard me say that there’s a ‘downside’ to it.”

At first, Portland Public only budgeted Shelman as a half-time teacher for this classroom. Principal Brenda Fox convinced the district to shell out for another part-time teacher for the class of 13.

Outside of this small class, Bridger Elementary has suffered budget cuts, too. 

Rochelle Duarte misses music and computer: “specials” that aren’t offered any more.

“We only have two specials — we only have library and PE. We used to have computers, because of our re-design that we were having. But then when the re-design was over, it’s back to library.”

Rochelle says it was cool to help cut the ribbon on the newly re-designed library. But the grant to improve the library required the school to have a full-time librarian. Rochelle and school officials agree that the grant made it harder to retain music or computer classes.

District officials say overall interest in language immersion is growing. But Leslie Dailey now plans to take Rochelle out of Bridger, so that she’ll have a wider variety of class choices.

It’s possible Rochelle will follow her older sister Sabra – and leave immersion behind. Sabra is in a Spanish class at Cleveland High, but it’s not immersion. She says it’s boring.

“It’s kind of weird, because I’m so used to getting yelled at a lot for speaking in English, and I’m so used to being in the ‘immersion’ environment, where you’re supposed to be completely immersed in Spanish and speaking in Spanish the whole period – and our teacher speaks in English for half the period.”

Bridger principal Brenda Fox says she and district administrators are already planning for next year — when there could be even fewer 6th graders in the school’s Spanish immersion program.

Sources in this story came to us via our Public Insight Network. Learn how you can become a source and help shape OPB’s news coverage.

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