CPS Class Sizes Pushed Beyond Limits

Huge number of Chicago Public Schools classrooms are overcrowded – and with mounting financial problems, the situation could get worse.

Roughly one in five Chicago Public Schools elementary students start the school year in overcrowded classrooms – a reflection, according to critics, of inadequate funding and misguided priorities by leaders.

CPS set the maximum class size at 28 for kindergarten and first, second and third grades. No more than 31 students should be in fourth, fifth, sixth, seven and eighth classrooms.

And yet more than 51,000 CPS students were in classrooms that exceeded those standards a month into the school year that’s just now wrapping up, the BGA found, analyzing CPS data obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Examples Of Bulging CPS Classrooms

NOTE: Some principals were able to lower class sizes later in the year by hiring additional teachers. Source: CPS records, analyzed by BGA

View complete classroom data from CPS.

What that meant at Avalon Park Elementary School on the South Side: A kindergarten class with 51 children and a first-grade room with 48 kids – way above what’s considered acceptable for youngsters learning the basics of reading, writing and math.

At Parkside Community Academy, also on the South Side, a kindergarten class had 42 students, while a third-grade room had 37, records show.

In fact, nearly all of Parkside’s lower grades had 34 or more students, according to the BGA analysis of 20th-day enrollment. CPS’ official head count 20 class days into a new school year.

Patricia Williams, who has six grandchildren at Parkside, summed up the size of the classes this way: "Ridiculous."

"It is hard for those babies," Williams said. "It is rowdy in the classroom. They are not getting the attention they need."

Williams is worried about her second-grade and seventh-grade grandsons who seem to be falling behind, especially in reading. She said she complained repeatedly to school leadership and network administrators that the teachers didn’t have the time to focus on her grandsons, but no one responded. She is now trying to move them to a different school.

Principal Cedric Nolen refused to comment for this story, saying via email: Neither "I, Nor Anyone on My Staff or My Parents, Would Like to Participate in Your Study, nor Answer Any Questions that Pertain to your study."

System-wide, about 1,600 elementary classrooms – or about 20 percent of the nearly 8,500 non-charter elementary classrooms in the 2014-2015 school year – exceeded CPS’ own standards, the BGA found.

Two-thirds of those overcrowded classrooms are on the South and West sides. About half have 90 percent or more low-income students.

There are about 230,000 non-charter elementary students overall in 409 schools.

Most schools – 325 – have at least one overcrowded room, the BGA found.

There are no formal penalties for exceeding classroom size standards.

As bad as the overcrowding numbers, previous analysis of CPS data indicates the numbers are improving. Two years ago there were 60,000 elementary students in overcrowded rooms.

However, about 3,600 more kids were in charter schools this year, and CPS does not regularly monitor class sizes in charter schools. School-wide – rather than classroom – averages are reported to the Illinois State Board of Education, where records indicate some Chicago charter schools are also exceeding district ceilings on class sizes.

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey had little to say on this overall subject, except that CPS monitors class size closely in non-charter schools and provides additional support – in the form of teachers and aides – for especially large classes, though that often happens after the 20th day of instruction.

Parents and teachers complain that CPS does not enforce its own standards and they often must fight to get more staff to handle large classes.

At Audubon Elementary School, a North Side elementary school where kindergarten classes had as many as 34 students, parents were irate, but "nobody did anything" at CPS to deal with concerns, according to Kathleen Hayes, a mother of a boy in pre-kindergarten.

Hayes said she loves the other parents at the school and wanted her son to be in the neighborhood, but decided to transfer him next year to a school where the principal is committed to keeping class sizes at 28.

"As a parent I was worried about my son being lost in the shuffle," she said. "I wanted to make sure that my son had a chance to be in a more personal classroom and to have a less stressed out teacher."

Class sizes may keep rising in Chicago, with possible school-level cuts in order to balance a projected $1.1 billion deficit. CPS is waiting for state government to adopt a budget before telling principals what their spending limits will be for next school year.

About a third of CPS’ funding comes from the state. Half comes from local sources – mainly property taxes – and the rest from the federal government. Once CPS gets the money, it allocates funding to schools on a per-student basis.

Principals are then left to decide how to spend the money and have to juggle things such as art teachers, reading specialists and managing class sizes.

Andrew Kaplan, whose daughter attends Mitchell Elementary School on the North Side, said his principal lucked out by being able to place a teacher aide, who is a certified teacher, in his daughter’s 34-student kindergarten class. The average salary for a teacher aide in CPS is $32,000, while the average salary for a regular teacher is about $70,000.

But Kaplan knows that most teacher aides are not certified teachers. Some don’t even have college degrees.

"We don’t value education the way we should," Kaplan said.

Lois Jones, head of a Chicago Teachers Union panel that fields complaints by teachers on class size and recommends remedies, said of CPS: "They are always saying, ‘We don’t have the money.’"

However, others said it’s a matter of priorities. CPS finds money for big administrative salaries and consultant contracts – including the no-bid $20.5 million deal for principal training that the FBI is now investigating to see whether embattled former schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett improperly pushed the arrangement.

"They could have chosen to lower the class sizes over many, many things," said Wendy Katten of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand Illinois.

Class size is not an issue that teachers can file an official union grievance over, but the union tries to work with CPS to remedy individual cases of overcrowding.

It’s an issue often at the center of teacher contract negotiations – with CPS threatening in the last go-around to make financial decisions that would have resulted in class sizes soaring. Talks are going on now as the current union agreement expires.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said, "We are worried about [CPS] devastating class sizes. We are worried about them herding students into classes, like animals into stockyards. We are looking for some assurances, especially in the lower levels."

Sharkey said that when the mayor’s office was given formal control of CPS in 1995, the Legislature made it so that class sizes were not enforceable through the teacher union contract, unlike most other teacher contracts in the state.

McCaffrey said CPS doesn’t comment on teacher contract talks.

Jeremy Finn, an education professor at State University of New York who did one of the landmark studies on class size, said that small class sizes are beneficial for all students, but are especially important for poor students.

"Small class sizes have long-term carryover on the achievement of students," said Finn. Students who spend three or four years in small classes are more likely to take Advanced Placement and other high-level classes in high school, according to research.

About the Author
  • Sarah Karp

    Sarah Karp was a senior investigator at the BGA in 2016, responsible for covering public education, among other topics, before moving to WBEZ. A former reporter for Catalyst-Chicago, the Chicago Reporter and the Daily Southtown, Karp has covered education, and children and family issues for more than 15 years. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.