Photograph by Mattias De Los Rios

Berkeley High School (BHS) parents and teachers presented a petition criticizing the management of increased class sizes at the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board meeting on October 25. Responding to an agreement reached between the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) and the district to pay teachers extra for teaching class sizes above the district target, the petition proposed hiring new teachers to bring class sizes back down.

In 2016, Berkeley voters approved Measure E1 to fund the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project (BSEP) Parcel Tax. Sixty-six percent of the tax revenue is dedicated to ensuring quality academic instruction through small class sizes. The maximum class size objectives are 23 students for kindergarten through fifth grade classes and 28 for sixth through twelfth grade. According to the petition, BHS currently has an average student to teacher ratio of at least 28.6:1.  However,  School Board President Ty Alper said that the average ratio is approximately 28.45:1.

BHS Math Teacher Masha Albrecht spearheaded the petition to decrease class sizes by hiring more teachers in Berkeley schools. Her primary concern was with her own enlarged class size. “This year, I no longer know the names of all of my students,” she said during public comment in the School Board meeting.

Shortly after circulating the petition, Albrecht said a BFT representative came by her classroom and asked for a copy. Soon after, BFT released an official statement that the union had negotiated extra pay for teachers with a class size average greater than 28.5. Averages of 28.5 to 31.4 students will receive one additional hour of compensation per week, which amounts to about $1,156 for the year. Averages of 31.5 or higher will warrant two hours of compensation per week.

“The problem with BFT’s proposal is that it incentivizes teachers into having more students. A teacher who is just at the threshold of 28 students can then persuade another teacher with 36 students — well above the threshold — to hand over a student, such that both teachers end up with the salary bump,” said Benjamin Nathan, another math teacher who co-authored the petition with Abrecht. He added, “Obviously, this completely disregards students, who are the primary stakeholders in the education system.”

The petition stated that in allowing class sizes to exceed 28, BUSD administrators were violating BSEP expectations and BFT contract language. However, during the meeting, Board Vice President Daniel Alper said, “While I don’t think that anyone would object to a class size cap of 28 students per teacher for every class at Berkeley High, that is not what the [BSEP] measure says or what the contract says.”

Board President Ty Alper said that the 28:1 ratio was more of an objective than an outright requirement.

In a statement, he said, “Some have made the reasonable suggestion that we hire approximately two more teachers in order to bring the class size average across the whole school below 28:1. However, in the recent past we have found that even when we are able to secure teachers for additional classes in the first few weeks of school, the disruption to student schedules is very upsetting to students and families. So after much deliberation, we opted not to take that approach.”

BFT offered a similar explanation for the compensation agreement. In their statement, they also discussed the difficulty of lowering class sizes by hiring new teachers due to a shortage of qualified teachers.

Albrecht and Nathan said they took a risk in opposing the actions of their union. Albrecht stated that the practice is frowned upon and met with a certain level of public scrutiny.

“I’ve had non-tenured teachers come and privately thank me for what I’ve done,” said Ms. Abrecht regarding her petition.

BHS administrators have been working to mitigate the impact of larger class sizes.

BHS Principal Erin Schweng wrote in an email to families on October 30 that the school has tried and largely succeeded to keep classes with greater student needs small, such as introductory humanities, math, and science classes, and allow larger class sizes in advanced courses and certain electives.

Schweng closed, “We regret that the average class size exceeded the target class size average specified by our contract with our teachers, and we are committed to ensuring that this does not happen again.”

Representatives from BFT, BUSD, and BHS are working to evaluate scheduling systems for next year to balance class sizes within the same courses and reduce class sizes in general.