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Ashland teachers struggle with large class sizes

ASHLAND — When students ask to enroll in Todd Hobein's first period biology class at Ashland High School, he points to the "35 Maximum Occupancy" sign by the door.

Hobein and 34 students already fill the classroom — squeezing around makeshift lab tables and counters rigged with extension cords for hotplates during experiments.

"The main concern that I have for a class this big is safety," he said during a break on Monday. "We're dealing with chemicals and hotplates and organisms."

Hobein's first-period biology class — which has about 15 more students than in past years — is not an anomaly. Nearly every class is more crowded at all the Ashland public schools this year as teachers and students face the fallout of sweeping budget cuts last spring and an increase in enrollment this fall.

"It's difficult and it's also challenging," Superintendent Juli Di Chiro told the School Board last month. "Parents have concerns, but we really have very little flexibility."

Administrators say they're receiving record numbers of complaints from parents and students — but there's little they can do without more state funding.

"I've fielded more complaint calls in the last two weeks than I ever had in the beginning of the school year," Di Chiro told the board on Sept. 14. "There aren't a lot of options that we can provide for alleviating the class sizes that we're seeing." Elementary school classrooms have about 30 students, except for kindergarten classes, which are slightly smaller, she said. At Ashland Middle School, there are about 28 students in each sixth-grade class, and 33 in seventh- and eighth-grade classes.

The worst crowding is at the high school, where many classes have nearly 40 students. Advanced placement and language classes are among those with the highest enrollments, Di Chiro said.

Dozens of teachers and other district workers were laid off earlier this year as administrators grappled with declining state funds for education due to the recession. The district's $22 million budget for this school year is 14.8 percent lower than the previous year's.

In addition, enrollment increased by 4 percent at the high school this year, further crowding classes.

Hobein's wife, Barbie, also a teacher at the high school, said she's working longer hours and taking more work home as a result of the larger class sizes.

All of her Spanish classes have more than 30 students, and two have 36 students each. At the end of the day, she's grading papers for 206 students. In past years, she had 10 to 15 fewer students in each class.

"The dynamics have definitely changed," she said. "Some modifications, of course, have had to be made."

Now, she assigns less group work, because of the physical constraints of a crowded classroom. She requires students who need more one-on-one instruction to visit her before or after school, or during lunch.

Still, she isn't complaining about the workload.

"I think that I'm fortunate to have a job and be employed full-time," she said.

She said teachers have been collaborating more this year, sharing strategies for teaching large classes and providing words of encouragement.

"I think what makes us unique in Ashland is that — it's Ashland — and we know we can make it work," she said. "But it's hard for everybody."

Students are aware of the changes in class sizes at the school, too.

"It's working OK," said freshman Lisa Werfel, 14, as she waited for Todd Hobein's biology class to begin on Monday, "but it's kind of harder because sometimes if you need help with something, the teacher's with other people and it's harder to get their attention."

Lisa said she's hopeful she will have a quality high school experience despite the cuts.

"I'm excited and I'm worried," she said.

Reach Hannah Guzik of the Daily Tidings at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.