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By Tim Hunt

A tempting offer for one year

Uploaded: May 9, 2013

The non-profit group supporting district-wide education in the Pleasanton school district has put forth a tempting offer to the school trustees and administrators.
Pleasanton Partnerships in Education offered to pick up 64 percent of the $325,000 annual cost to reduce the size of first grade classes from 30 to 25 students. Before the state's budget crisis hit in the mid-2000s, kindergarten through third grade classes were 20 students. The student count has crept up as the state has cut funding for the district. It was 20-1 in 2010; 25-1 in 2011 and 2012 and went to 30-1 in the current year. The district budget plan calls for 30-1 in the upcoming fiscal year.
When voters statewide passed the governor's tax increase last November, it stopped trigger-cuts in education funding that would have taken effect Jan. 1, 2013. The district, like many prudently run agencies, planned for the worst case so it has some one-time money to spend this year.
A group of parents has been pushing to restore the first-grade program. They are right when they say it is expensive—very much so—that's why the teacher/student ratio was raised in tough times. Even after the governor's successful push for the income tax and sales tax increase, school districts are still below the funding levels of a few years ago without accounting for inflation.
For perspective, please remember that class sizes of 30 students were common in elementary schools for decades until former Gov. Pete Wilson, in flush times in the 1990s, proposed the class-size reduction program instead of simply shoving money into district's general funds. He was no friend of the California Teachers Association—and vice versa—this approach seemed good for kids and didn't contribute to teacher's salaries (it did contribute to union dues by increasing membership).
Reducing class sizes seems to make sense. However, it only works if teachers modify their instruction pattern to ensure individual attention to students. Instead of a blanket reduction across the board, the district may well be better off supporting teachers with well-trained aides who can provide focused attention to students who are lagging behind their peers.
Research has made it clear that students—all of us for that matter—learn differently. Some are visual, some do well hearing material and others do much better when they can use their hands. The instructional challenge is mixing these various approaches into a lesson plan. In older grades, simply lecturing as many teachers did in my day, is ineffective at best for a good number of students.
It would be a much better investment in student learning to provide skilled aides to first through third grade classrooms to work with students who need extra help than to add a few class sections to first grade on what could be a one-time effort.
There's no guarantee that the district would have its share in the following fiscal year or that this would be the highest priority. PPIE also would need to raise that much money again next year and decide again that this is the highest priority.
District trustees will consider the offer on their May 14 agenda.