What are combination classes at Modesto schools, and why do parents, teachers oppose them?

Saying so-called combination classes used by Modesto City Schools essentially cut students’ direct instruction by half, upset parents and teachers have complained to district administrators in person and in writing.

Ten people shared their concerns with school board members at their latest meeting, as other supporters sat in the audience, and nearly as many submitted written comments.

Combination classes are among the solutions when a school has too few students in one or more grade levels to create a regularly sized class. In some MCS schools, this has led to classrooms that combine first- and second-graders or fourth- and fifth-graders.

“There aren’t any particular grade levels considered most appropriate for combining,” Modesto City Schools spokeswoman Linda Mumma Solorio told The Bee by email. ”Considerations for combo classes are driven by enrollment numbers at each school site and parents’ desire to keep their students and siblings together at their neighborhood school. When a school ends up with too many or too few students, combining grades helps keep them at their neighborhood campus instead of busing them elsewhere.”

Over the past several years, families have been vocal about wanting to avoid having their children “overflowed,” or bused (sometimes long distances) to other schools, she said.

Other conditions that have led MCS to use combination classes, Mumma Solorio said:

The district’s student population is growing and is affecting each neighborhood school and grade level differently.

MCS has 340 more elementary school students today than it did two years ago. A portion of this increase is from the expansion of transitional kindergarten over the past two years.

Creating combo classrooms has allowed the district to decrease in recent years the number of students bused to other schools, it says.

Combo classes not only option

There are other ways MCS can address student populations that don’t divide into regular-size classes. Classes can be collapsed or added. Teachers can accept more than the standard 24 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes, or more than 34 students in grades four through six, the district says. But teachers can’t take more than the physical classroom can accommodate.

It’s the combo-classroom solution that families and teachers are protesting.

During the period of public comment at the March 27 MCS Board of Education meeting, Enslen Elementary parent Marc Etchebarne said he and other families oppose the projected 33 combination classes across the district’s 22 elementary schools during the 2023-24 school year.

Next year, more than 1,000 students “are set to receive half of their grade-level instruction,” he told trustees. He added that “internal maneuvering” of district employees could alleviate some of the problem.

“There are 50-plus professional development positions at the district level with teachers who could be teaching actual students and mentoring teachers at their school sites,” Etchebarne said. “We also know that the district has hired multiple vice principals for next year, many of whom are teachers and have had positions that now need to be filled. Many schools do not need all of these administration assistants and vice principals ...”

Retired teacher Susan Peters, who was 2014 Stanislaus County Teacher of the Year for primary grades, said she has taught a variety of combo classes. Even as a strong teacher, it is hard to get one year’s worth of curriculum mastered, let alone two grade levels, she said.

Other issues with combo classes, she said, are the “huge maturity disparity” among students and the “massive amount of skills, concepts and differences to address.”

She and other speakers noted that many students still are behind because of the lockdown and remote learning that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why, if indeed “every moment counts”?

Elizabeth Guptill, who’s been teaching nearly a quarter century and currently has a first/second-grade combo class at John Muir Elementary, reminded trustees of the many subject standards at both grade levels. Even in non-combination classes, any teacher can tell you there aren’t enough minutes in the school day to cover everything, she said.

Combination classes double the challenge, she said, and mean that “whenever one grade level is being taught their curriculum, the other grade level is not receiving direct instruction” but rather working independently.

That hardly aligns with the district’s motto of “Every student matters, every moment counts,” she said.

Other speakers said this is a question of equity: How is it determined which children get to be in a single-grade classroom vs. a combination class?

Some school communities had meetings about combination classes, said Kathryn Presley, a teacher at Shackelford Elementary.

“Imagine our shock finding out these parent informational meetings were held for other sites and other parts of town but not offered for south Modesto families,” she told trustees. “Where is the equity for all MCS families regardless of ZIP code?”

Lakewood Elementary parent Lauren Montavon told trustees she reached out to the Turlock, Oakdale and Sylvan school districts, among others, “and none of them are resorting to combination classes.”

The Bee checked with those three districts to confirm.

Turlock Unified spokeswoman Marie Russell said the school district has not had combination classes for years. “When classes are full, we overflow students to another school site for one year only. They are able to attend their home school the following year,” she said in an email.

Sylvan Union spokeswoman Velma Silva says her district also does not have combo classes. “As far as I know, we haven’t had them since I’ve been here in 2015.”

And Oakdale Joint Unified School District Superintendent David Kline emailed, “The situation in Modesto is not unlike other districts. At times, it is necessary to have combination classes. There is language in the certificated contract that addresses this. We have been fortunate to avoid combination classes during the five years that I have been with the district and I believe this is something that the district has been successful in avoiding for years prior. However, I cannot say that this would never happen.”

District says it’s considering options

Mumma Solorio emphasized that the possibility of having 33 combination classes across all the elementary schools next academic year is just that: a projection, a possibility.

“The need for combination classes and other enrollment scenarios are reviewed in December, again in the spring, and twice through August and September,” she said in an email. The numbers get more accurate as the school year nears.

“When deciding to add a grade-level class, a combination class, or overflow students, we must also consider whether there are available open classrooms,” she said.

The district knows that combination classes are an important topic to families and school communities, Mumma Solorio said. “As Modesto City Schools considers its options, we want to engage with parents to get their perspectives. The district is currently developing an elementary school parent survey to get input and feedback from families.”

By evaluating enrollment numbers, staffing levels and available space, the district is “actively working to reduce the number of combination classes,” she said. Staff plans to provide the board with an updated report in the coming months.