The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
A discussion around minimum classroom sizes brought many concerned students and teachers to a recent Board of Trustees meeting with worries a higher threshold could have a negative impact on diverse class offerings.
Trustees were asked to weigh in on whether the district should shift back to its old board policy of requiring classes to have at least 20 students enrolled or to allow a pandemic-era emergency policy lowering that threshold to 10 to remain in place.
No formal decision was made during the May 24 meeting. That vote is expected to come in June. Instead, trustees and district community members provided input on the potential change.
On one side, Interim Chancellor Melissa Moreno recommended the district shift back to its 20-student per class requirement while adding language to the policy that would allow for more flexibility on whether a class should be canceled.
The move would save the district between about $200,000 and $360,000 a semester and would also help the district “operate as efficiently as possible,” Moreno said. Regardless of which minimum level is selected, Moreno noted class enrollment didn’t show huge differences. When the level was 20, about 30% of classes had fewer than 20 students enrolled and about 8% were in single digits. When it was 10, about 37% of classes had fewer than 20 students and 11% in single digits, she said.
“I feel it’s my job to ensure that we are fiscally prudent or at least are considering moving down a road of fiscal prudence,” Moreno said while introducing the issue, later adding, “I don’t have authority to change the policy unilaterally. I’m presenting it now because you can feel the pressure for an answer and I think what we want to bring in June is a clear answer at least for how we move forward in the next year.”
That pressure Moreno referred to came from faculty and students who implored the board to adopt a recommendation from the District Participatory Governance Council to permanently adopt a minimum class size of 10.
Smaller classrooms allow for educators to go more in depth on issues, innovate and connect to students, many said. A higher threshold could also lead to important classes being canceled such as those about ethnic minorities, English as a second language classes, and early writing courses. The threshold would also make it more difficult to build new course offerings, students and faculty argued, noting new classes often take time to build up.
“I am concerned, alarmed, by the minimum class size requirements,” said Robert Lee, Cañada College sociology department professor of 18 years. “If we’re an organism, you guys are the brains, the trustees and chancellor. If you’re the brains, the cells that make up this body, the basic building blocks of life are the face-to-face classes where students and faculty meet and interact.”
Trustee Mike Guingona said he was in favor of doing the least harm and backed the 10-student minimum, a level also supported by former Student Trustee Lesly Ta, a nonvoting member who passed the position to Arthur Veloso after that meeting. Veloso also expressed support of the 10-student minimum.
Regardless of which option the board lands on, board Vice President John Pimentel said he wanted to see clear language explaining when a class would or would not be dropped. He noted unclear language on the issue has been a major concern for students recently. He also agreed with a suggestion from Ta that students be able to see the number of students enrolled in a class as they shop for classes which would give them more insight into whether a class is about to be dropped.
Board President Lisa Petrides and Trustee Richard Holober, both concerned about potential financial hardships in the future, said they’d like to see more data before making a permanent decision. They asked staff to bring back data about minimum class levels at other districts, how not getting a class affects a student’s educational experience such as prolonging their stay with the district, which classes are more likely to be canceled and for data to differentiate between online and in-person classes.
Ultimately though, most board members suggested now wouldn’t be a good time to increase the threshold. They noted the district is focused on increasing enrollment and smaller class sizes appeal to students.
“Among our top priorities is boosting enrollment and one way you boost enrollment is by reducing class sizes which we’ve done and I think that makes a lot of sense going forward,” Holober said. “My concern would be making this enshrined as a permanent policy because times and financial conditions change. … This needs to be done in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Rather than make a permanent decision on class sizes this June, Moreno suggested the board make a temporary decision on what to do for the fall, settling the issue in the short term and giving them more time to hold a more in-depth study session next semester. The next discussion is expected to take place June 26.