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July 24, 2014

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Clark County teachers rally in campaign for smaller class sizes

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Steve Marcus

Clark County School District teachers rally for smaller class sizes during a news conference outside the Sawyer State Building Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Teachers, parents and union members held the rally as legislators were meeting in a joint assembly and senate committee meeting to discuss education issues.

Teachers Rally For Smaller Classes

Amy De Vaul, right, an English teacher at Spring Valley High School, listens to speaks during a news conference outside the Sawyer State Building Wednesday, March 13, 2013. De Vaul said that teachers in the high school with five classes have an average of 212 students. Teachers, parents and union members held the rally as legislators were meeting in a joint assembly and senate committee meeting to discuss education issues. Launch slideshow »

35, 38 and 44.

These are the number of students in some Clark County classrooms, according to teachers who rallied Wednesday afternoon against large class sizes.

As lawmakers discussed education changes and funding in Carson City, more than 65 members of the local teachers and culinary unions gathered at the Grant Sawyer Building to call attention to class sizes in Las Vegas, which are among the largest in the nation.

"Class sizes matter," said Clark County Education Association President Ruben Murillo, addressing members of the media over a loudspeaker. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the quality of education goes down with an increase in class size. We need the proper funding and resources to educate our kids."

Although Nevada has a class-size reduction program in the first to third grades, cash-strapped school districts were forced to increase class sizes during the recession to balance their budgets.

As a result, Clark County middle and high schools now have average class sizes of 34 and 35 students. Elementary schools have average class sizes of 20 to 21 in the first to third grades, and average class sizes of 33 and 34 in the fourth and fifth grades, according to district officials.

For comparison, the average class size nationally is about 25 students.

"This is shameful," said Hickey Elementary School teacher Shawn Bolin, who has 37 children in his fifth-grade class. "This needs to stop. We need more funding for our schools."

For the most part, the research backs teachers like Bolin, who advocate for smaller class sizes. Many studies show a link between small class sizes and higher student achievement.

Critics, however, aren't so sure. They argue that Nevada has shown little improvement in test scores despite implementing a class-size reduction plan in the early 1990s.

This debate over class sizes reared its head in the Legislature earlier this month when state Superintendent Jim Guthrie argued that an effective teacher trumped the issue of large class sizes. His testimony drew the ire of Democrats, who are pushing for more than $300 million in additional funding to expand class size reduction and early learning programs statewide.

Most teachers argue they can't give adequate attention to individual students when class sizes are too big.

There are 35 kindergartners in Ramona Morgan's class at Manch Elementary School. Because there is no class size cap on kindergarten, class sizes for this grade level often balloon to the high 30s.

"These babies need my attention and I can't get to all of them," Morgan said. "Having 35 kids (in a class) is just too much."

Furthermore, teachers argue classroom management and student discipline becomes more difficult the larger the class gets. Building relationships with students also becomes more of a challenge.

Hyde Park Middle School teacher Rita Morris counts about 40 students in her sixth-grade pre-Algebra classes. With that many students, Morris says it hard to engage all of her students.

"Just getting to know the kids is difficult," she said. "It's almost near impossible."

The teachers union is seeking more state funding to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, said Executive Director John Vellardita.

State lawmakers have until Friday to act on a petition initiative that would create a 2 percent margins tax on businesses with revenues of $1 million or more. Legislators are also discussing a proposal to revise the state constitution to increase taxes on the mining industry to pay for more education funding.

Without a more stable source of education funding, none of the education policy changes — such as full-day kindergarten and early childhood education — will work, Vellardita said.

"You can't have all-day kindergarten or early childhood ed without addressing class sizes," he said. "That would be a recipe for failure."

Over the past two years, the School District has battled with the teachers union over contracts to raise more funding to reduce class sizes. A recent arbitration win is allowing the district to restore about 700 of the 1,000 teaching positions that were cut last year.

Hiring more teachers using money taken from educator pay raises irked some of the teachers at the rally, who hoisted signs that read: "Stop taking my $ to pay for costs."

Clark County School Board President Carolyn Edwards said she agreed with teachers who want more state funding to lower class sizes. The School District needs more funding from the Legislature, she said, but acknowledged that state money is still tight.

"Their hands are tied just as our hands are tied," Edwards said of lawmakers. "I'm glad the focus is on education. I hope they continue to focus on bringing back what has been cut (during the recession)."

As teachers formed a picket line and marched to chants, Hickey Elementary School teacher Jennifer Wolfe looked on with her 6-year-old daughter Sherri. The kindergartener shares her classroom at the northeast valley school with 34 other children.

"I'm worried about her education," Wolfe said. "It's so hard to get kids to learn when there are 30, 40 kids in a class."

As her mother talked, Sherri smiled and raised a picket sign. It read: "My class size is 35."

"Too much," Sherri said. "Too much."

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  1. The critics who argue that Nevada has shown little improvement in test scores despite implementing a class-size reduction plan in the early 1990s are ignoring some important facts. First, we're never comparing apples to apples because the tests keep changing, and in fact, with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, we're not even testing the same curriculum! Second, it's amazing that we've done as well as we have considering the explosive growth and dramatic changes in demographics we've experienced in the valley. I won't disagree that an effective teacher is the most important contributing factor in improving our schools, but even the very best teachers are fighting an uphill battle while trying to adapt to one new program after another, large classes of students with needs that span the spectrum from mainstreamed special ed kids to the very gifted. Overcrowded classrooms and a district hell-bent on testing the kids half to death forces educators to teacher to the middle, and this cannot be good for children. Our legislators need to adequately fund education in Nevada, and Clark County's new interim superintendent needs to make lowering class size a high priority.