Teaching Spanish is Ilene Chupnick’s passion. She loves helping fourth and fifth graders get an early start on learning a new language through Baltimore County Public Schools’ Passport program. So, when she found out Feb. 5 that the program would be ending after next school year, she had trouble sleeping and eating in the days ahead.

“I thought I’d be doing this until I retire,” Chupnick said tearfully. She’s been teaching in the program since 2015. “I only have seven years left.”

Passport was one of the casualties in a difficult budget season that’s led to $104 million in proposed cuts. School system officials said Monday that the program would have been phased out regardless of fiscal challenges, despite when teachers learned of that plan. In the past week, parents and staff have started to see how those cuts would increase class sizes in middle and high schools and eliminate certain jobs. Superintendent Myriam Rogers reminded the public at a school board meeting last week that the funds cut from some areas will be invested in others. This is all about student achievement, she said, especially in elementary schools. But with that come necessary trades-offs.

“As a brand-new superintendent, it would not have been my preference to have to walk into the first operating budget having to make difficult decisions,” she said. “But, oftentimes, a lot of hard work is worth it on behalf of students.”

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The cost of shrinking class sizes

Rogers’ proposed budget shifts resources toward a long-term effort to shrink class sizes in grades 3-5. Next school year, she’s adding 36 teacher positions to lower the average class size from 25 students to 24.

Rogers said last week the school system is taking a “stepwise” approach to lowering class sizes incrementally. It is not aiming for a particular size, a spokesperson said.

Maryland’s average elementary school class size was 21 students in the 2021-22 school year, according to the latest report from the state department of education. Statewide, only 3% of elementary school classes had 36 kids or more; in Baltimore County, it was 13%.

Matt Chingos, a researcher at the Urban Institute who’s studied class sizes, said there isn’t much research on how many students should be in a classroom, though an often-cited study from the 1980s extols the benefits of smaller classes.

The researcher said lowering class sizes by one student, as Baltimore County plans to do next year, will probably not make a huge difference, “but if you told me there’s a whole lot of third, fourth, fifth grade classrooms with 30, 35, 40 kids and we’re getting them down to 20, 25 kids by investing in some additional resources ... that actually sounds like a pretty good thing to do.”

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Julie Culotta knows all about how crowded classrooms can impact students. The Parent Teacher Association president spent most of 2023 advocating for Hampton Elementary to be relieved of its overcrowding. (It’s now included in a boundary study across the central region that should do just that.)

“The kids are constantly feeling like one of many and are not getting the same experiences,” she said.

Her son was in a kindergarten class with 27 other students. Some kids needed more attention than others, and in a class that big managing behavior problems can turn into chaos.

But Chingos said creating smaller classes can come with sacrifices.

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“No matter what class size you aim for, you’re always going to be facing some set of trade-offs between ‘do I want to have more teachers and smaller classes? Or do I want to spend that money on other things?’” Chingos said.

The best solution would be if everyone had their own teacher, but school systems don’t have a budget to support that, he said. And, if they did, they probably couldn’t get enough teachers to fill those jobs.

Rogers also plans to add 35 English for speakers of other languages teachers, 35 special education teachers, 39 teachers to help with staff development and over 200 staff to help with expanding public prekindergarten. Some elementary schools will have math specialists, and individualized education plan facilitators will be sent to elementary schools to relieve the work of administrators.

Those positions will come at the expense of others.

Chupnick, the Spanish teacher, was among the eight teachers in the Passport program selected to stay for its final year, as it shrinks from 49 elementary schools to 31 and will be offered to only fifth graders. About half of the Passport teacher jobs are being eliminated, she said, and those teachers can transfer to other positions.

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A spokesperson for the school system said the end of the Passport program makes way for the eventual introduction of a language-immersion program and aligns with recommendations from a 2021 efficiency report.

“I hope and pray something can change for the 25-26 school year so that our students get the education they need and deserve to be as successful as possible in this world,” Chupnick said in a text message.

Sacrifices in middle and high schools

In Baltimore County’s proposed budget, middle and high schools may get the shorter end of the stick. Class sizes will rise in middle schools from an average of about 19 students to 22, and high schools will go from about 21 students to 23.

Rogers said last week that class sizes can vary by subject, grade and student need.

Department chairs and team leader positions in middle and high schools, which bumped teachers’ salaries, are also being cut. There are now 14 of those positions in each middle and high school. Next school year, it drops to nine in high schools and eight in middle schools.

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Staffing guidelines given to principals state there should at least be a chair for special education, math, English, social studies and science. The others can be based on what the school needs.

At a Tuesday school board meeting, Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said teachers have been asking her about class sizes, department chairs and the proposed budget in the past week. Rogers met with teachers earlier that day to answer questions, but concerns remain. Sexton said she doesn’t like that positions are being cut and noted the system still struggles to fill jobs. However, she acknowledged that the system must “look at things differently to get results.”

Rogers described the staffing changes in middle and high schools as modest. She explained that the largest number of teachers a middle school lost was eight. For high schools, it was 13. Anything that was above eight teachers, she said, had to do with enrollment, which dropped by nearly 800 students this school year but is projected to grow by 1,384 students next school year.

The superintendent wants to maximize staffing as much as possible, and reducing department chairs can help with that. She’s also trying to utilize teachers with lower teaching loads, such as the 250 school-based resource teachers who had no courses assigned to them. But the changes are only temporary. Once the school system is back to a better fiscal position, she said, the secondary school positions will return.

In the future, the system will be more transparent about class sizes and staffing through a report that will update that data in real time, Rogers said.

Board Chair Tiara Booker-Dwyer supported Rogers’ plans and said local and state lawmakers will have to help.

“To truly get at the size that we need to have true impact on student achievement, it’s going to take major shifts,” she said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Baltimore County Public Schools had earmarked its Passport program for a phase-out before the budget process began.

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