Kindergarteners chattered around teacher Cindy Robinson, eager to show her their carefully written phrases or ask questions. Most of her students at Central Elementary came to her class unable to read or write in English; some couldn’t ask to go to the bathroom. Their earliest papers show little or no writing, only pictures and an occasional scrawl.

But after a year in Robinson’s small class, Theresa Nguyen showed off her poem about stars and gabbed happily about the guppies and snails in tiny terrariums around the room. Another cracked open a book to show a visitor. Eighty-five percent of the kindergarteners scored high in literacy on school district tests this spring — a number that Principal Cindy Marten said was previously unheard of for Central. It is an aging City Heights school overlooking Interstate 15 that has more poor students and more English learners than almost any other San Diego Unified school, where one student stopped Marten on Wednesday near the playground to tell her excitedly that his teenage sister had just finished her first year of sobriety.

Central staffers credit its gains to a controversial plan, started just a year ago, that whittled down class sizes for the youngest children to just 15 students per teacher in 29 schools, some of which also kept children in the same groups from year to year. It was meant to be a pilot program to study whether the small classes impacted test scores.

Those tiny classes were one of the first programs eliminated by the school board to save $8.1 million, crucial money for a school district grappling with an $80 million deficit for the coming school year, and schools began planning for bigger classes and smaller staffs.

Now talk is in the air of saving the program at some schools using stimulus dollars. But no decisions have been made, and schools such as Central are left in staffing limbo, uneasily waiting to learn of their fate.

“I’m afraid this will get lost,” Robinson said. “If we don’t continue this, it was a waste.”

Superintendent Terry Grier has floated the idea of saving the class size study at 14 of the poorest schools, such as Central, using roughly $5.5 million out of its estimated $31.8 million in federal stimulus dollars meant for reforming the lowest scoring schools. Doing so could help solve a financial problem for San Diego Unified by finding spots for 84 of the 185 teachers who have a contractual right to a job in the district but nowhere to teach because fewer jobs exist after the cuts. But it also raises worries among critics such as school board member Katherine Nakamura, who said that with little talk of class size on the national level, the plan is unlikely to win accolades — and future stimulus dollars — from the federal government.

Nakamura also questions the fairness of salvaging the tiny classes while other elementary schools, including ones with comparable poverty levels, see their classes grow in size. The school board is expected to take up the issue in July.

The dilemma at Central underscores the anxiety in schools over dropping budgets and the possibilities presented by the stimulus. Keeping classes small at the chosen schools would be a departure from the stimulus plans that were hastily drafted by schools earlier this year, most of which centered on extending the school year. And while board members talk about saving the project, the cuts are already wreaking havoc at Central and other schools in the experiment as principals plan for fewer staffers and displaced teachers seek jobs elsewhere in the system.

Class sizes are growing from 20 to 24 in the youngest grades at elementary schools outside the program, but losing the even smaller classes means a double whammy for schools such as Central, where class sizes will suffer a dramatic increase from 15 to 24 students in kindergarten and grades one and two. Schools have also been told that they can no longer use federal money for disadvantaged students to hire teachers to reduce class size in upper grades, as they have in the past — another staffing hit.

That translates into dozens of teachers being pushed away from the schools. Because bigger classes mean fewer teachers, the jump in class size means that Central will lose at least 11 of its 43 teachers. Principal Marten fears the school could actually lose 14 because of the changes in how to spend federal funds. It is a blow for the school, which has worked to cut down on teacher turnover.

“People used to say, ‘You just have to do your time at Central until you can leave.’ Now our reputation has changed,” Marten said, pointing to the number of teachers who have stayed. Robinson has worked there for a dozen years; Marten said that the majority of its teachers have been at the school for at least six years, and all but one have been there for five years or more.

Marten is pushing for San Diego Unified to use some of the stimulus dollars to rescue the program — and fast — because her teachers are already seeking other jobs elsewhere in the system. If those teachers gamble on the hope that Central will ultimately get to keep its smaller classes and the teachers to teach them and the board does not save the program, they could end up scrounging to find a job in the fall and get assigned to a school with little choice. But if they jump at another job and the board decides to bring back the smaller classes, they could end up missing out if Central regains its teaching spots.

“I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that miraculously I’m going to be here,” said Kristen Stacy, a 5th grade teacher who has worked at Central for six years and would be displaced to another school by the cuts.

The tiny classes were part of a program spearheaded last summer by Superintendent Terry Grier, who modeled it after a Tennessee study and was disappointed when the school board chose to end it for savings. Teachers union President Camille Zombro criticized it as a poorly planned idea that lacked input from teachers and complained that because the program was a study, the tiny classes were being given to schools in wealthy and poor areas alike, instead of putting the neediest schools first. The union filed a labor complaint that any changes to class size needed to be negotiated with the union.

“We said a year ago, ‘Don’t do this.’ And one of the reasons was that you’re doing this in the middle of an economic crisis and it’s unsustainable. What would happen to these schools?” she asked. “But they didn’t care. They moved ahead. And now look at where we are.”

Central teachers say the smaller classes seem to be working, especially for children who are learning English. Kindergarten teacher Michael Stanley said he can pay closer attention to test results for each child and zero in on the specific problems that are holding each child back. When one boy read the word “has” as “house,” Stanley realized that the child was jumping to the wrong word because “has” was an unfamiliar word. It is also popular with parents, who pleaded with the school board to save the program.

“I’m not that articulate on the engineering of education,” said Marlin Rice, whose son is a kindergartner at Central. Rice said the boy, who had earlier been labeled as having autism, is now moving into mainstream classes and may not have a disability at all. “But with the small class size, the magic happens. They get motivated.”

Though many teachers are ecstatic about the tiny classes, the results across the school system are difficult to measure. Grier said that state tests are still being scored and that results would likely take several years to observe anyway. Central has been cobbling together information from benchmark tests, which are given several times a year, to show some promising results. Based on those early indicators, Marten expects that state test scores will surge this year. But research on class size is notoriously slippery: California has spent billions keeping the average class under 20 students, but scholars are unclear on whether that is small enough to make a difference. The Tennessee study that Grier relied on suggested that especially small classes of 17 students or fewer were key. And smaller classes alone are not enough.

“You can’t just reduce class size and think that overnight, things will be fixed,” said Grenita Lathan, who oversees elementary schools in San Diego Unified. Schools also need to personalize instruction so that students get more individual attention tailored to their needs. Lathan said Central is doing just that.

Paula Cordeiro, dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego, said continuing the project would be valuable because fewer studies have taken on the smaller class sizes. “It would be smart for them to do it — if they could afford to,” she said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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