Rooms 34 and 48 at Logan Elementary School each house first-grade classes of Spanish-speaking children from Los Angeles' core. Each has number and color charts, computers and chalkboards, four clusters of desks and chairs.
The only hint of a difference between the two is that in Room 34 all those chairs and desks are filled and in Room 48 they are not.
But beneath the surface, fundamental change is afoot. The Echo Park campus is straddling the line between past and future for California elementary schools, with five of its first- and second-grade classrooms already scaled back to 20 or fewer pupils under a new state incentive program, the other nine still packed with up to 32.
And as a recent school day unfolded, what at first seemed a simple question of furniture evolved into a demonstration of dramatically different teaching and learning opportunities.
With 29 fidgety students, teacher Esperanza Olvera has to adhere to a strict schedule and spend much of her time ensuring crowd control. Upstairs in Room 48, teacher Barbara Goya was able to loosen up a little. With just 18 students, she could let the 6-year-olds rove at will among workstations.
"When I've had 30 or 32 kids, I would never let them do this," Goya said, motioning toward two students moving from the puzzle table to the computer terminal. "They would be out of control! I just couldn't give them this freedom."
Logan Elementary is one of the Los Angeles Unified School District's class reduction pioneers, but dozens more campuses are expected to follow suit when classes resume this week, followed by another wave next week.
Some educators maintain that the state's $971-million campaign to improve reading and math scores by cutting classes to 20 may not produce the desired results. Real academic gains, they say, are not seen until class enrollment falls closer to 10.
Those critics cite an extensive study by an Arizona State University professor, which found barely measurable test score gains when classes of 30 students were cut to 20. Below that, performance improved with each fewer student.
Reducing classes by a third "means a one-third increase in cost, [while] kids gain a couple of percentile ranks," said the professor, Gene V. Glass, who reviewed 75 research studies dating back to 1900. "Nobody who makes decisions on achievement grounds is going to get excited about that."
But the teachers of Rooms 34 and 48 beg to differ.
"My husband asked me if 20 will really be different," Olvera said, surveying her crowded classroom. "I told him with 30 now, when two are absent, there's a difference."
As a public schoolteacher for more than a decade, in Los Angeles and Montebello, Olvera has only known large classes. She makes do, and offers amazingly creative lessons inside Room 34, using approaches that have earned her status as one of the district's mentor teachers.
But she sees the cost of crowded classrooms. A third of the way through the first-grade year at her year-round school, only one student is beginning to read.
She has too many children to give any of them enough personal attention, she said. One of her favorite ways to teach reading and writing is to have students write or draw daily in interactive journals. But the "interactive" part depends on her daily responses to their efforts--sort of like a teacher/student pen pal arrangement--and she can only get to a few of them each day.
Pressing open the word-filled diary pages of Ernie Ibarra, the only student who has learned to read, she said: "If I could get to 10 kids a day, I know I could get all of them to this level."
For years, this has been the mantra of primary teachers: These are crucial years, and teaching reading requires one-on-one attention. Just please give us smaller classes. Please.
Now, under a state program that provides $650 per student to districts that lower class size, many teachers are getting their wish.
Olvera will join their ranks this week when Logan expands its reduction program and moves a third of her students to a new class. For her, the only hardship is making the change midyear, after she has formed attachments to her students. Parents are equally torn, she said.
Principal May Arakaki, who first told Logan's parents about class-size cuts at a meeting a month ago, said everyone was clapping until she explained what that meant.
"When I said, 'Some of your children will have to go to new rooms,' they all stopped smiling," she said.
But her greatest ammunition with parents is describing the advantages of smaller classes.
In Room 34, there is no wiggle room. Much of the instruction is delivered lecture-style in Spanish, as the children sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the small rectangular rug at the front of the classroom, although a first-grade lecture is often a song, a demonstration or even pantomime.