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Families leave Portland Public Schools as pressure mounts to fix crowded classrooms

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Isabel Johnson and her son Everett, who attends Glencoe Elementary in Southeast Portland. The schools PTA, led by Johnson, has pressured Portland Public Schools to prevent packing up to 32 students in elementary school classrooms this fall.Declining enrollment at Portland Public Schools could mean bigger class sizes at several campuses. That has some parents pushing back on the district's plans and others pulling their kids from public schools.

In February, PPS announced an estimated 8% overall enrollment decline, noting it expects to enroll about 3,400 fewer students this fall, compared with pre-pandemic numbers. That's because many families either moved or sent their students to online charter schools, private schools or homeschool during the pandemic. Population researchers say a declining birth rate in Multnomah County also has contributed heavily to the loss of students.

The enrollment decline is expected to drive down state funding in future years. In response, PPS plans to cut about 87 teaching positions and scale back on the number of classes, according to spring budget documents.

Staffing projections created by the district in May show at least 17 elementary grade classrooms are likely to have 30 or more students, with a few expected to have up to 32 students. Parents say that's too many young kids in one class, especially as students are still catching up after more than a year of distance learning.

"My feeling is, no child, particularly post-pandemic, should be in a classroom of 30 kids or over," said Isabel Johnson, whose child will be a fourth-grader at Glencoe Elementary School in Southeast Portland this fall. Johnson leads the Glencoe Parent-Teacher Association, which has been vocal about its disapproval of PPS staffing ratios.

Teachers and education advocates often link smaller class sizes with improved learning outcomes, especially in early grades, though research on the topic has produced mixed results. Statewide data from the 2020-21 school year shows the median class size for grades K-5 ranged from 18 to 22 students.

Earlier this year, dozens of PTAs in Portland signed a collective letter to the school board asking for fewer teacher cuts, in an effort to prevent classrooms with up to 32 students in elementary grades. Citing increasing costs and dwindling future revenue, the board approved a budget that dipped into the district's reserves to try to stave off additional staffing cuts, but it may not be enough to prevent ballooning class sizes at some elementary schools.

Johnson and other parents want to see the 2022-23 school year budget amended to add back teachers cut from K-5 campuses where class sizes are projected to be 30 or more.

"I think the add backs we're talking about, at least at this level, at schools that have classes of 30 or more, that warrants the spending and it's not that much extra money," Johnson said.

That's unlikely to happen.

PPS school board member Michelle DePass, who served as board chair up until mid-July, said the district is trying its best to respond to a dwindling budget.

"We have to resource allocate where our needs are the greatest," DePass said, noting district administrators look at a school's demographics and the number of students with higher needs, when making staffing allocation decisions.

Sydney Kelly, a spokesperson for PPS, said class sizes this fall don't exceed the district's thresholds. "When the class size at a school exceeds the staffing standards, additional teachers may be allocated," Kelly said, but noted there is no extra money in the PPS budget to further reduce class sizes for next year.

Glencoe parents have been the most vocal, but district officials note that that isn't a low-income school or a school federally designated as needing additional support.

Even with staffing cuts, higher class sizes could end up costing PPS extra money. Previously, the teachers union and school district negotiated additional pay for teachers with big class sizes in certain grades.COURTESY PHOTO: ISABEL JOHNSON - Parents and a few students rally outside the Portland Public Schools headquarters in spring 2022 with signs that read 'students are not sardines' to protest large class sizes.

'Vicious cycle'

While the enrollment decline that's pushing class sizes near maximum capacity was caused in-part by families leaving Portland Public Schools, the latest class size estimates could worsen the problem.

Auna Cho has a child continuing at Glencoe Elementary, but her eldest, a middle schooler, will start private school this fall. It's a move Cho's family hopes will be temporary — they plan to re-enroll her daughter in PPS once she reaches high school — but enough to help her get back on track after losing motivation during distance learning.

"With no homework, she was just doing the bare minimum to get by," Cho said of her middle schooler during the height of the pandemic. "She needed more guidance and structure and rigor."

As for her son, she's worried he may not get the attention he needs in a crowded classroom next school year.

"He's a higher-needs kid. That's a huge concern for me," Cho said. "How's he going to navigate in a large class if the teacher can't give him extra attention?"

Cho said she's torn about the decision to pull her daughter out of public school. "It gets into this vicious cycle with further enrollment loss," she acknowledged.

Other families are doing the same, if they can afford to.

One parent told Johnson, the Glencoe PTA president, that he and his wife pulled their kids from PPS once they saw the projected class sizes for 2022-23.

"Glencoe is a great school however 30+ kids in a class is not an experiment we want to try out," the parent told Johnson in an email exchange.

Disparities; focus-option schools

Amid the fight for lower class sizes, PPS staffing projections show most of the district's focus option schools have been unscathed. Option schools differ from typical neighborhood schools. They usually offer curriculum focused on a particular subject or area, and families must apply to get in. Applications usually exceed available space.

Unlike neighborhood schools, which have to enroll all students in their attendance boundaries, focus option schools can limit enrollment. That's created a disparity in class sizes between the two types of schools.

District leaders say the disparity may have been an oversight that warrants a closer look, and some focus schools are increasing their enrollment for next year.

"The differential was not intentional, and it is under review," PPS School Board member Julia Brim-Edwards said in June. "Given that most focus programs have more applicants than they accept and they have the ability to control enrollment and therefore class size, it seemed unusual that the class size numbers at focus programs or schools would in some cases be lower than the maximum class size that PPS set and at some neighborhood programs class sizes were required to go to as high as 34 students before a school received more staff..."

Marshall Johnson — no relation to Isabel Johnson — also has a child at Glencoe Elementary. He said PPS deserves credit for prioritizing equity and the needs of each school in most of its decision making, but in this case, he sees a disconnect.

"For those students going into fifth grade next year, to have class sizes of 32 students with one teacher, the ratio just seems off," Marshall Johnson said. "Where are the resources for the student-to-teacher ratios that could support post-COVID educational recovery?"

This story has been updated to reflect that PPS plans to cut about 87 teaching positions, not teachers.


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