Under pressure: Class sizes in Shrewsbury causing teacher headaches, achievement gaps

Shrewsbury-large-web-iconBy John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer

Shrewsbury – Oak Middle School English teacher Derek Pizzuto is, to put it mildly, frustrated. After a series of personnel cuts in Shrewsbury schools, there are less teachers to go around. Less teachers means a higher teacher-student ratio and less time to work individually with students. A lack of teachers also means there's no one to help students produce a yearbook or advise a photography club. And now, student achievement appears to be suffering in Shrewsbury schools.

“We'se at a crisis point where teachers and administrators are doing all they can,” Pizzuto said. “We'se working past the boundaries of what can be. I's seeing more and more teachers looking burnt out.”

Pizzuto said since last year, the average middle school class has contained more than 30 pupils.

As a result, teachers have begun cutting activities such as the school's yearbook. The literary magazine ended last year, Pizzuto said, and so did the photography club.

“We'se shortchanging kids and staff. We didn's get into this business to number-crunch, but when you have one shop teacher for 900 kids, one art teacher for 900 kids?it's ludicrous,” Pizzuto said.

Pizzuto said Shrewsbury is missing out on creating students with a more well-rounded education. “You cut out all that stuff, and there's nothing left. Education's a lot more than that,” he said.

“Right now, we have insufficient resources to meet out students” needs,” said Shrewsbury School Superintendent Joseph Sawyer. “That's the current reality.”

Sawyer alerted the Shrewsbury School Committee to the problem in his State of the District presentation in September, in which he outlined the problems that come with too-large classroom sizes.

According to Sawyer, this year class sizes are above the district's guidelines in 70 percent of core classes in Grades K-8. Some Grade 2 and 4 classrooms have around 30 students. All core classes are above guidelines in grades 4 through 8, and most high school class sizes exceed guidelines as well.

Under School Committees guidelines, class sizes in Grades 3 to 8 should be between 22 and 24; and in Grades 9 to 12, between 18 and 20 students.

The district released its annual class size report Oct. 23.

“We'se [exceeded] the guidelines in places before, but never across the board, where you have 29 to 30 students [per class] in the middle school program. There are several classes in the 30-32 range, and that's very troubling to me,” Sawyer said.

The pressure has affected day-to-day instruction, Pizzuto said. Teachers can's individually check each students” homework, for example.

“All we have time for is the critical areas?math, science, social studies, English language arts,” said Pizzuto. “Kids are not getting to stretch their wings. And when you'se busy chasing your tail, you can's make greater connections [with students].”

Those connections are important, he said, especially in the sometimes-volatile age group that he teaches. “When dealing at the middle school level, these kids are seething buckets of hormones and insecurities,” said Pizzuto. “You end up spending time putting out fires, instead of helping others move up.”

The quantity and quality of attention a teacher can give to individual students suffers in oversize classes, according to Sawyer, and the physical space is compromised as more students are “shoehorned” in.

As a result, school personnel said that often students unable to get the attention needed from a teacher will act out to get that attention, which then negatively impacts the classroom climate for other children.

Sawyer said he has seen a correlation between class sizes and student achievement. MCAS scores show that students are not improving as well as they should, and achievement gaps in nine out of 11 categories are growing.

“I can's help but think the major variable is that class sizes have increased in the last five years,” Sawyer said. “We'se seeing a trend going in the wrong direction. Results require resources. … If this trend continues, the quality of education is going to deteriorate significantly.”

The School Committee on Oct. 9 unanimously approved its Fiscal Priorities & Guidelines for FY 2015 Budget Development. Its first priority is to bring as many classrooms back in line with the class size guidelines.

“The reason we have higher class sizes is definitely a result of limited budget resources, no question about it,” said Sandra Fryc, chair of the Shrewsbury School Committee. “Would the town add to our resources? That remains to be seen. I hope that's a question that comes up.”

Fryc said that parents of Shrewsbury students are becoming more aware of the problem, and is hoping that awareness will start to lead to a solution.

Sawyer said the trouble stemmed from the economic crises of 2008-2009. The school system was able to fend off layoffs thanks to federal stimulus money. However, the town was not able to keep up with funding after the expiration of those funds and state mandates to fund programs such as special education.

“It's a question of resources,” Sawyer said. “We don's have the money.”

As a result, several reductions in teaching positions were made throughout the district, notably in the 2013 Fiscal Year, where 32 positions were cut, including 16 classroom teachers, 12 support staff, and four administrators.

Some of those positions, including two administrators and special education aids, have been restored since, however, the district was unable to restore and any teaching positions to address classroom sizes.

In January, the district recommended Town Meeting voters approve a $54 million budget, with the hope of restoring cuts made in previous years. However, Town Meeting reportedly approved only $52 million for Shrewsbury schools.

There has been significant investment made in education in Shrewsbury, including equipping students with iPads and construction of the new Sherwood Elementary School.

Sawyer was quick to point out, however, that parents bear a significant portion of the costs of the iPad program, and that the state paid for half of the new school.
“Funding for a project like a building isn's an either/or,” Sawyer said. “That's a separate project outside the operating budget for the schools.”

Pizzuto noted that there was no teacher available to train students to use the iPads, and “we haven's had a computer class in a few years,” he said.

Pizzuto, who lives in Maynard, said he would like to see Shrewsbury residents support a Proposition 2 ? override, but noted that Shrewsbury has a history of defeating such proposals.

“The community has to decide what it values,” Pizzuto said.

Town Manager Daniel Morgado has vowed to again recommend a balanced budget in January 2014, after which a Town Meeting will be held to ultimately decide what residents want to spend on the schools.

“I expect student performance and classroom sizes to be part of the budget narrative,” said Morgado, more so than in previous years.

“We run a pretty tight ship,” Fryc said. “We'se taken a hard look at where we can find resources. After years of doing that, we'se lean. There's no place to go.”

Kimberly A. Taylor has a daughter who attends eighth grade at Oak Middle School. Taylor said it was unclear whether residents would support an increase in taxes to hire more teachers.

“Some would, some wouldn's. I know the majority of parents would, but parents don's make up the entirety of the town,” she said.

Meanwhile, students like Taylor's daughter may be paying the price for the school's lack of teachers.

“She's not getting the individual help and assistance with academics that she needs,” said Taylor, who is also the principal of Charlotte Dunning Elementary School in Framingham. “Kids are not getting the time for extracurricular activities, like the yearbook. Now teachers don's have the time to do the extra activities that are important for social development.”


The district's annual class size report can be found at http://schools.shrewsbury-ma.gov/egov/docs/1382626086_24230.pdf.

sh class size graph


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Posted by on Nov 14 2013. Filed under Byline Stories, Must read news, Shrewsbury. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

7 Comments for “Under pressure: Class sizes in Shrewsbury causing teacher headaches, achievement gaps”

  1. I would be willing to support a 2-1/2 override but have one question. Do we have available classrooms to support 25-30 more teachers. Smaller classrooms not only require more teachers it also requires more classrooms.

  2. We are lucky to have teachers like Derek who not only do an amazing job preparing our middle schoolers for high school but care enough to take the time to voice their concerns. To share first hand how the lack of financial support for our students is negatively affecting them, which by the way for those who continually vote against increasing these much needed funds, will also one day negatively affect the selling price of your home. We all need to step up and do what is needed to keep this town the amazing community it is.

  3. Bob,

    We do have available classrooms. Back in 2007, I wrote an editorial in the local papers, warning that a time would come when we would have overcrowding along with empty classrooms. That is, basically, where we are now. We reassigned desks from some rooms to others, as the student numbers overall have stayed reasonably close from year to year (on an incremental increase). The rooms that used to house an entire additional team at grade 8 and grade 7 have been repurposed – but they still are available should we return to previous staffing levels.

    • I completely agree with the points you made, Mr. Pizzuto, and I think you’re a great role model to your students for speaking out, as our class motto dictates. I can say, it’s really inspired me as a student to speak my mind as well.
      I began noticing this problem with funding and larger classes around a month into the year, as we finished our first units in most all subjects and a sudden burst of tests appeared. The teachers all seemed so much more worn out than usual because of all the grading they were having to do, and the usual relaxed atmosphere of the classrooms became more confining and intimidating with the teacher’s exhaustion. It was also brought to my attention that the literary magazine was cut, and it was an activity I had very much enjoyed in the past, as I enjoy writing stories and poetry. Another unfortunate result of the lack of funding was that select choir was stretched over a shorter period, such a shame. And that’s only the beginning — I’m sure many other students are also upset about these happenings and various others, because it puts us in a more confined state of mind. Lack of activities make us think, “We only need our core subjects to be successful in life”, while this is an obviously untrue fact. It’s most likely because school is meant to prepare us for life. When we only learn a limited amount of things in school, we become close-minded, believing that these are the only skills needed for adulthood. One thing that I find puzzling — the lack of engagement in the school’s activities. This has been addressed before in our classes and Team Times, and I hope to find out why. Maybe it’s because we’re busier than ever, especially with the advanced technology that’s recently taken hold of our generation? Perhaps it’s just plain because we, as a generation, don’t take as much initiative, which I do sometimes find as I chat with friends, such as them being “too lazy to Google a word” or something similar, which is foolish as we have such knowledge at our fingertips. Maybe we need to really change our attitudes, maybe we need to work as hard as the generations before us, or maybe we simply need to stop being afraid of standing out, as seen in classrooms when children don’t raise their hands, simply surrendering themselves to become brainless, obedient cattle amongst the sea of other exactly like them. A realization, an epiphany of sorts, just hit me. I believe that the larger classes may be the problem with the lack of initiative, because students are too intimidated by all the students, so they don’t raise hands or speak out in class, a habit which carries on into their extracurricular activities, making them participate less and drop out from such activities all together.
      It didn’t occur to me before, but the points made about students acting up for attention are true more than ever, and their natural behavior fuels the teachers’ bad moods, which leads to both them and students to struggle more. I’ve seen less and less of my peers who try to excel, while I, on the other hand, find myself trying more this year than any other year before. And perhaps the question should be raised, what other negative affects are these larger classes having on our community of staff and students? How can we address these?
      Thanks you for sharing this with us, Mr. Pizzuto, hopefully we’ll recover from this crisis so that all students can become well-rounded and successful.

      -Daria S.

    • Glad to see Mr. Pizzuto is still making a difference in the world. Wish I had more teachers like him over the years…

      • Thank you for Mr. Pizzuto for raising your voice in this on-going (7+ year long!) discussion. You were my daughter’s teacher 4 years ago and you are one of the best in the system! Shrewsbury has many awesome teachers who work hard to help all students. But, realistically, these teachers cannot continue to achieve the same results under these deteriorating funding scenarios…….

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