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Class sizes balloon during budget crunch

St. Helens, Scappoose School District teachers work to figure out how to best educate students in a harsh classroom reality
by: Tyler Graf BIG CLASS — St. Helens High School science teacher Amber Horn gets the attention of her students during her second period class attended by close to 40 students. Horn said classroom sizes have ballooned in the last year.

Each morning Amber Horn spends time prepping for her 9 a.m. students.

During the first week of class at St. Helens High School, that meant pouring over the names of the nearly 40 teenagers enrolled in her natural resources class, a 27-percent increase over the previous year.

St. Helens is not alone in facing year-over-year increases to class sizes. The issue has become a statewide concern. Locally, it affects schools at both local districts, teachers and administrators say.

Horn, a fourth-year, part-time teacher, says she has seen an explosion in the size of her three classes this year, as between 37 and 39 students are enrolled in each class.

It could have been worse, she says.

Before the school year began, Horn was slated to have 45 students in each of her three classes. That was before other teachers stepped in to take the pressure off by accepting some of her students into their classes.

She says she's thankful for that but is not so optimistic about what the class size increases mean for the future.

'It's harder to know [how to motivate students] if you have these other big classes,' Horn said, adding that she never thought she'd be happy with 39 students in one class. 'My getting to know their names is hard enough.'

Students at the high school say Horn's class is not the only one facing increased class sizes.

Monique Smiley, a St. Helens High School senior, said her senior projects class has 50 students, shared between two teachers. 'Yeah, it can be difficult,' she said.

Bethany Allen, another senior at the high school, said classes have filled up to the point that some students have trouble finding seats.

'It seems like the classes are more packed now,' she said.

The Oregon Legislature over the summer passed a controversial education package worth $5.6 billion, a figure similar with the previous biennium's budget. It was still $1 billion less than the Oregon Education Association expected. That money was at least partially intended to retain teachers.

The state's budget is taking a toll on labor negotiations at the St. Helens School District, where the idea of putting more teachers in classrooms remains a sticking point in ongoing labor negotiations between the school district and the St. Helens Education Association.

Union organizers say overcrowding has grown to a critical level at the St. Helens School District, which has lost 16 teachers since the previous school year through layoffs and retirement, a result of $1.6 million in cuts made to the district's budget.

The Oregon Education Association and the Confederation of Oregon Teachers have both warned of the implications of rampant increases to class sizes. But with state revenue projections in a slump, teachers and administrators worry that class sizes will continue to grow.

Those concern stems from how educators say children learn.

The rule of thumb is that K-5 students benefit from smaller classrooms, where they can have more one-on-one time with teachers. But as students get older, the classes can increase with less impact on the educational experience, said John Miner, superintendent of the Scappoose School District.

Some elementary school teachers are feeling the pressure of increasing class sizes, however.

In an email, Tracy Baker, a teacher at Petersen Elementary in Scappoose, said she hopes the district finds alternatives to relieving classroom sizes. For the 2011-2012 school year, the district is already taking off 10 furlough days as a cost-saving maneuver.

'I understand that sometimes larger class sizes are needed with budget problems, [etcetera], but I do not necessarily agree it is the best decision,' Baker said. 'I look forward to the day I get my class list at the beginning of a new school year and see the number 25.'

Mark Davalos, superintendent of the St. Helens School District, said his district will have to perform an educational overhaul if budgets don't realign with the need for teachers.

'If numbers keep increasing, there will come a point where we'll have to rearrange how classes are structured in the future,' Davalos said.