STOCKTON, Calif. – Like any educator, principal Bill Parks and his staff at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Stockton have worked hard to motivate their students to graduate and go to college. But now they fear the fruits of their labor may be offset by the budget cuts and the recession.
Located in north Stockton, Stagg serves largely students of color — half of them are Latinos —from low-income households. Less than one-third of parents have graduated from high school.
In the past five years, the school's funding has been slashed by nearly $2.5 million, largely due to a drop in enrollment as hundreds of families left the neighborhood after losing their homes to foreclosure.
Having lost 41,098 homes to trustee sales, banks and third party investors, one out of every 143 housing units in Stockton now has a foreclosure filing. Stockton was also ranked as the country's foreclosure capital in 2007 with a foreclosure filing for every 21 households, according to RealtyTrac.
Parks said he estimated between 15 to 20 percent of his students do not have a stable home due to the foreclosure crisis. On nearly a weekly basis, a handful of students transfer in and out of Stagg.
"They've either lost their home, or moved into a place with lower rent, or they moved in with relatives. And that's all around the district," Parks says.
In fact, student enrollment at Stagg has decreased from 2,196 in 2006-07 to 1,754 in 2010-2011, a 20 percent drop. For each student who leaves and is not replaced, the district loses $5,249 per student.
Park says students are facing very hard times nowadays. Those who relocated to new schools are suffering academically because teachers at different locations teach with a different style. Even though students may have transferred within the district, they need to adjust and catch up quickly.
Those who remained in Stagg are suffering from teacher layoffs and increased class sizes.
In the past few years, teachers, campus security, counselors, a library technician and a parent outreach coordinator were let go. As a result, most of Stagg's classes have 32 students. Some required classes, such as freshman-level English, have up to 40 students.
Crowded classrooms mean distracted students, says Parks, and teachers often cannot get to students in the back of the classroom to see how they are doing on assignments.
Sophomore Christian Sosa agrees. He says crowded classrooms make it difficult to change courses once the semester starts because most classes are maxed out.
Sosa says he also needs to share computers with others during his geometry class. That means he could only view diagrams or math problems when he had access to the computer screen.
Last year, the cutbacks caused the class size at Stagg to jump to 36 students for most courses. Teachers found themselves dealing with more behavioral issues during class time.
Ron Tankersley, a business teacher at Stagg, said students are acting out more in class and are skipping class at higher rates. Since class sizes increased last year, 75 percent of the school's students had an unexcused absence or were tardy on three or more days, compared to 62 percent in 2009-2010.
Tankersley says, in the past, he could have given students more guidance and attention, but now, there are just too many students.
Students are aware of the toll on teachers. Sosa says one of his teachers constantly talks about the impact of the budget cuts on the school. "She always looks stressed out," Sosa says.
Students also want to spend more time in school. Stagg has the highest participation rate in after-school programs in the district. About 650 students participate in sports, clubs and other activities, compared to an average of 250 students at the other high schools. In an area filled with gangs, violent crime, drugs and alcohol use, after-school programs are prized.
To offset some of the guidance lost due to staff layoffs, Stagg started a student mentoring program a few years ago to link juniors and seniors with freshmen, so older students can help tutor younger students in their selection of courses and college preparation work. Stagg also instituted block scheduling four days a week, which allows students to take three classes per day instead of six. This allows students to spend more time in each class while teachers cover the curriculum in more depth.
Parks says these new strategies have brought some success. Of the seniors who attended Stagg last year, nearly 90 percent graduated. And there was a 34-point jump in the school's academic performance (API) score, ending four straight years of declining performance.
But Parks is not yet ready to celebrate. He says Stagg's API of 626 is still well below the state's target of 800, plus, the achievement gap between Latino and African American students and their peers remains wide. Those long-term challenges will need resources to turn around.
Facing an additional mid-year cut of up to $11 million at the district level that could possibly lead to more layoffs, Parks is concerned that those small gains will quickly disappear if there are not enough resources to maintain them.
"We can reach the minimum needs, but you can no longer go beyond," he said.
Stockton Unified School District:
Class Size: 20 in Kindergarten, 32 in 1st to 3rd grades, 33 in 4th and 5th grades, 32 in 7th to 12th grades.
Teacher Layoffs: 100 pink slips were sent out, 35 were actually laid off but are likely to have been rehired since October. However, about 20 office assistants were laid off and safety assistants' work hours were reduced.
School Year: 180 days.
(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.
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