Schools under heavy stress

A new report out today examines internal and external stresses from budget cuts and economic contractions on the states’ 30 largest school districts. When handled singly, districts have been able to cope with larger classes and even a shorter school year. But combinations of shocks to the system are stretching schools’ ability to serve children who are also facing financial strains at home.

“Too often school budget cuts are viewed in isolation from one another, rather than looking at their cumulative effects,” says Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource, which published Schools Under Stress: Pressures Mount on California’s Largest Districts. “What is clear is that California schools are having to cope with multiple stresses and their impact is magnified by the experience of students from economically distressed households, which in turn can affect their academic performance.”

The 30 districts comprise 2 million students, about a third of the state, and range from Los Angeles Unified (667,000) and San Diego (132,000) to Twin Rivers and Chino Valley (32,000 each).

In surveying districts over nine months ending in March, EdSource found:

The proportion of children in poverty has risen sharply in most of the 30 largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)
The proportion of children in poverty has risen sharply in most of the 30 largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)

Childhood poverty: Rates of childhood poverty increased since 2007 in 26 of the 30 largest districts. Poverty rates, as defined by federal guidelines, approached 50 percent in districts hardest hit by the recession: Fresno (49 percent) and Stockton (46 percent). In San Bernardino City Unified, the childhood poverty rate rose 60 percent, to 43 percent from 2007-2008. Rising poverty, accompanied by increases in students qualifying for subsidized meals at school, can signal malnutrition and turbulence at home, affecting children’s ability to concentrate. Just when they need more services and adults to help children cope, school districts have fewer resources.

“Teachers will tell you that the needs that our students manifest when they don’t know if food is coming or know if they have a place to live in tomorrow are emotionally destabilizing. It is incredibly difficult for teachers dealing with that day in and day out,” says Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson.

Fewer summer programs: Most districts have cut back their summer programs drastically since the recession, compounding problems for students struggling to advance to the next grade or considering dropping out. Enrichment summer programs have all but disappeared. This year, Los Angeles Unified will restrict summer offerings to a handful of high schools. The exceptions among districts are Oakland, Fresno, and Santa Ana, which have cut elsewhere or creatively used other sources of money to expand summer programs.

Fewer instructional days: Twelve of the 30 districts have fewer than 180 instructional days, the norm until a few years ago. While three districts – Fontana, Long Beach, and San Jose – restored the week they had lost, three more – San Bernardino City, Moreno Valley, and Chino Valley – joined another half-dozen districts at 175 days. The report cited a Maryland study that found the passage rate in reading and math on a state test fell a half-percent for every unscheduled day off.

Class sizes have risen in all but a few of the largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)
Class sizes have risen in all but a few of the largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)

Larger classes: Of the 30 districts, only Stockton has an average class size of 20 or fewer, and only in kindergarten. Half of the districts now report more than 30 students per class in one or more elementary grades, while two (San Francisco and Los Angeles) have kept K-3 below 23. The Legislature began to relax the state’s class-size reduction rules three years ago; Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to remove all limits (subject to local bargaining) next year. Studies looking at the relation of class size to academic performance have been mixed, but any teacher will say that classes of 30 (or more in high school) limit individual attention and increase incidents of disruption.

Fewer counselors: Students struggling with issues at home, whether joblessness, homelessness, or hunger, will bring their problems to school, which in the past has provided shelter from the storm. California already had the nation’s highest rate of counselors to students (1,810 to 1, 50 percent higher than the national average as of two years ago). There are on average 20 percent fewer counselors in 22 of 30 districts than pre-recession. High school students needing college advice are often on their own.

Teacher layoffs: Only a fraction of teachers who receive layoff notices in March lose their jobs by summer, but it has been a significant fraction. Of 96,000 teachers in the 30 districts in 2010-11, nearly 11,000 received notices; of those, 20 percent or 2,213 were laid off last year. This year, with uncertainty over the November tax initiative looming, Los Angeles alone issued 9,507 layoff notices in March and San Diego 1,655. What cannot be quantified is the impact on teacher and school morale of massive notices. But the uncertainty is distracting and dispiriting, with teachers focusing much of their attention on job searches.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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