California’s Stressed Out Schools — Survey of 30 Largest Districts

The cascading effects of California’s deepening budget crisis and sickly economy are forcing public schools to cope with multiple stresses which could threaten how well students do in school.

Until now, most attention has focused on student test scores as a way to gauge the health of a school. Even as federal and state governments relentlessly ask for schools — and children — to achieve at ever-higher levels, the number and intensity of a range of “school stress indicators” are on the rise.

Except for the elimination of $248 million in funding for school transportation, school districts mostly escaped the mid-year “trigger” cuts that many feared would require additional cutbacks, including further reducing the school year. Yet school districts are still struggling to cope with the accumulated effect of budget cuts over the past three years.

An EdSource survey of the state’s 30 largest districts identified a number of stress indicators such as larger class sizes, a shorter school year, continuing teacher layoffs, fewer counselors, and declining student enrollments. More children living in poverty, higher enrollments in the school lunch program, and rising unemployment rates compound these stress factors.

David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools, says that he is “amazed at the resilience of school personnel in the face of all this uncertainty to soldier on and get the job done.” At the same time, he adds, “You reach a point where people get worn out and there is nothing to elevate their mood. That will grind you down.”

The districts surveyed serve about one-third of the state’s 6.2 million public school students. They include five districts in the Bay Area, including Fremont Unified School District, Oakland Unified School District, San Francisco Unified School District, San Jose Unified,and Mt. Diablo Unified School District.

The survey’s preliminary findings include:

– Class size in kindergarten through 3rd grade is growing, with 30 or more students in at least one grade in over half of the K-12 districts surveyed. Only San Francisco was able to offer classes with an average of 22 students or less in all its K-3 classes.

– Teacher workforce is shrinking. Eleven thousand teachers got pink slips last spring while 9,000 were rehired. But many of the rehired teachers could be laid off next year as state revenues fail to meet projections.

– The number of instructional days has fallen below 180 for some districts. A dozen of the 30 largest districts surveyed have a school year of less than 180 days — fewer than almost all other states and industrialized countries.

– Eighteen of the 30 districts surveyed are experiencing declining student enrollments, some as high as 5 percent, compared with the 2007-08 school year. That means that they receive less money from the state — between about $5,000 and $6,000 per student based on attendance — forcing schools to cut back on a range of programs.

The most dramatic indicator to emerge in the survey is the reversal of the 1996 “Class Size Reduction,” which aimed to reduce K-3 class sizes to 20 students.

Until just two years ago, the program was in place in virtually every school district in California. In the 2009-10 school year, the districts began bumping up their class sizes, though most were able to keep classes under 24 students.

Now most districts would relish the chance to keep K-3 classes at 24 or fewer students. Only four of the K-12 districts surveyed — Elk Grove near Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco — have all of their K—3 classes at that level. .

Louis Freedberg and Sue Frey are based at EdSource, a non-profit, non-partisan organization in Mountain View whose goal is to engage Californians on key education challenges facing the state. 

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