SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Gardner Academy, an elementary school located west of San Jose's downtown, serves nearly 600 students, most of whom are Latino and from low-income families. For these students, "combo classes" are becoming the norm even as class size expands.
"The impact of budget cuts on education has been increasing little by little over the last five years," says Janis Hubbs, who became Gardner's principal seven years ago. Gardner's enrollment has increased by over a hundred students while the number of full-time teachers has dropped.
To accommodate the growth, Gardner has expanded its use of combo classes, which involves combining students from two different grade levels into a single classroom for most of the day. The practice is being implemented in other schools throughout the San Jose Unified School District as well.
Today, Gardner has five combo classes. Three are in its bilingual program, combining second and third grades, third and fourth grades and fourth and fifth grades; and two are in its English program, combining second and third grades, and fourth and fifth grades.
The main challenge, Hubbs notes, is integrating the curriculum and standards from two grades into the same lesson so all students can benefit. It's especially hard for teachers who teach bilingual classes. Their challenges are doubled by the language divide and the fact that they no longer have teacher aides to help them.
"It's very difficult to teach two grades in two languages at the same time," Hubbs says.
"I remember when we had an ample state budget for schools," she adds. "Now we have to adjust everything according to what we receive."
Sara Perez, who teaches third and fourth grades at Gardner, says the district created combo classes as a cost-effective practice. Gardner implemented combo classes to allow one teacher to take up to 30 students in a class from each consecutive grade and avoid opening additional classrooms. The school saved money and teachers as a result.
But students have paid a price, Perez believes. Gardner's students are not mature enough to adapt psychologically. A fourth grader, for example may feel dumbed down to have to finish their day in a third grade classroom. The impact can affect the student academically.
"This is the first time I've been in a classroom with these changes," says Jacqueline, a 9-year-old fourth-grade student at Gardner. "It's confusing to me because I'm in the fourth grade, but when I need to go to the third grade classroom to continue my classes, I don't feel like I'm in the fourth grade."
Other students say they get distracted by having a different grade in their class. "When the fourth grade students come they make a lot of noise and I can't hear what my teacher is saying. I feel I don't concentrate as well," says Victoria, an 8-year-old third grader at Gardner. "I want my classroom to be third grade only."
Katia Berrocal, who teaches social studies and Spanish to second and third grades at Gardner, says the combo classes are confusing to students because while they share most of the class time with the other grade, they still have to move and sit with their same-grade peers during math and language arts sessions. Since those classes require very specific curriculum for each grade level, students in combo classes have to relocate to different classrooms to sit with their own grade and receive instruction from different teachers.
"With combo classes, students need to learn the teaching method of each teacher. It can be confusing for them and disorganizing for us," Berrocal says.
Mariana, an 8-year-old third grader at Gardner says combo classes will help her learn how to adapt to many instructors as she moves up to higher grades, but as of now she doesn't feel comfortable.
Three years ago, there were 20 students in each classroom, allowing students to interact with the teacher on a continuing basis. Now there are about 30 students per classroom. "Students are more easily distracted, especially those who have problems with concentration and attention," Berrocal observes.
Teachers are also under more stress, she adds. They take the blame for low academic results but people don't realize how hard it is to teach a class of 30 kids, needing to share school supplies and learning materials because there aren't enough to go around.
Parents are also confused about combo classes. Maria Teresa Nuñez, mother of a third grader at Gardner, says her son was given a combo class where he needed to go to a second grade classroom for some of his classes. She worries her son is learning at a grade level behind. As a result, she's gotten more involved in the school, taking an ESL class so she can help him with his homework. "I don't know when things will get better in the schools, but I will continue to be involved with the school and my son's education," she says.
"My grandson's academic level has dropped, and I believe this is due to his confusion of going from one classroom to the next," says Ciro Gonzalez, a grandfather of a fourth grader at Gardner. Gonzalez says he doesn't expect any changes so he is also taking an ESL class so he can help his grandson with homework.
Perez encourages more parental involvement. "We need the intervention of parents. They are the first teachers in the home," she says. She has seen an increase in parents' interest in their children's academics. That's the one silver lining in the cuts.
San Jose Unified School District:
Class Size: 30 in Kindergarten to 3rd grades, 31 in 4th and 5th grades, 33 in high schools.
Teacher Layoffs: None.
School Year: 180 days, restored from 175 days in 2010-2011.
(Data provided by EdSource's survey in October, 2011)
Read more on budget impacts on local schools through New America Media's "A Day in the Life of a Classroom" project, a journalistic collaboration between NAM and six ethnic media outlets to document the toll of budget cuts on local schools.
Read more on California budget on K-12 Schools here. Translations available.