Wednesday, March 17, 1999

School cuts are a waste of time, lives

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The latest round of belt-tightening at Cincinnati Public Schools is supposed to help the district firm up its budget for the coming school year. No matter who's yanking on that belt, the kids will feel the pinch.

        The belt grew tighter Tuesday. Superintendent Steven Adamowski recommended $10 million in administrative cuts, including a pay freeze for all but the lowest-paid employees.

        Those reductions follow another $10 million trimmed in the combined budgets submitted by the district's schools. As a result, second-graders at Covedale Elementary won't have enough places to hang their coats next fall. Students in Withrow High School's chemistry lab will be too close for comfort or safety.

        The cuts were mandated by the system's headquarters. But, school-specific recommendations came from in-school committees of teachers, principals, parents and community representatives. The committees recommended cutting custodians, social workers and librarians.

        Melody Dacy, president of the district's principal association, told me she thinks the cuts could reduce the number of teachers and raise class sizes in as much as half of the system's schools.

        None of these cuts, much less a salary freeze, is appealing. But for me, as well as the parents and teachers I talked with, the notion of increasing class size is particularly harsh.

        Cram seven or eight more students into a classroom and you threaten the quality of education. Overworked teachers are stretched even thinner. Questions go unanswered. Students find it easier to goof off and drop out. Time and lives are wasted. Kids suffer.

        In Room 114 at Covedale Elementary, next fall's class size will jump from 22 to 29. Judy Naugle's second-graders will run out of hooks on the coat rack.

        “They'll try to share hooks,” said Mrs. Naugle, who has 31 years experience. “But I know second-graders. They don't mean to be messy. But, their coats will wind up on the floor.”

        Floor space will also be at a premium in Room 114. Mrs. Naugle wonders where she's going to find a spot to put a desk she reserves for students who need to calm down.

        “Mr. Time Out,” she said, “has nowhere to go.”

        At Withrow, budget cuts will increase Alberta Hemsley's chemistry class from 24 to 32 students.

        “Every spot around every sink will be taken,” said the veteran of 32 years of teaching. Hers is a classroom of test tubes, Bunsen burners and razor-sharp microscope slides. “Anytime you increase class size in a lab over 26, the possibility for accidents skyrockets.”

Of two minds
        The experts in education are divided on class size's effect on learning.

        Rich Leonardi is president of Dayton's Buckeye Institute, a nonprofit educational think tank. He has reviewed the research on class size and studied Ohio schools, including Cincinnati Public. He's found “almost no relationship between class size and achievement.”

        Not so, says Paul Hill. The University of Washington professor and author of Fixing Urban Schools has found larger classes to have a negative impact on learning as “classroom discussion and personal attention suffer.”

        The schools' primary customers know how they feel. Mad and afraid.

        Marian Adams has a daughter at Withrow. “She's not outgoing, and she doesn't get her questions answered now. With bigger classes, she'll fade into the background.”

        Alberta Hemsley fears discussion time in her classes will be sacrificed for “getting everyone to calm down.”

        Bigger classes keep Judy Naugle from getting to know her students and “getting to each one of them when they have a question.”

        Unanswered questions frustrate the two daughters Debbie Cooley sends to Covedale. Doing poorly explained homework makes them “very upset. It takes hours to calm them down.”

        I don't envy the task Superintendent Adamowski faces in slashing the district's budget, nor the school committees trying to squeeze thousands of dollars out of their individual budgets.

        And, frankly, I'm not sure there is a quick, acceptable solution to the financial and educational hole the district is struggling to escape.

        But, I do know when the budget boils down to bigger classes and less teacher attention, we've lost sight of the real bottom line when it comes to saving our schools.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.