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Class-size targets a constant struggle

One problem is resolved, and another pops up.

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That's what the race to comply with Florida's class-size initiative has become for Tampa Bay school districts: a high-stakes game of Whack-A-Mole.

Officials say they have every intention of meeting a Friday deadline to lower the size of classes to new limits of 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth and 25 in high school.

But daily enrollment changes, data entry glitches and other issues are making it hard to reach the goal of absolute compliance — not a class above the limit — that allows districts to avoid stiff financial penalties and reap up to $35 million in state reward money.

"Pinellas County schools expect to make class size," said Andrea Zahn, spokeswoman for the school district, "but it requires massive collaboration between schools and district staff to monitor this on an almost hourly basis."

Pinellas reported 82 classrooms out of compliance Tuesday, while Hillsborough counted six aside from those in charter schools, which aren't required to meet the new limits. But by Wednesday, Hillsborough's number had jumped to 16 class sections out of compliance at 13 different schools.

Districts have hired additional teachers and built new classroom wings to satisfy the requirements of the 2002 law. Hillsborough has spent around $1.5 billion toward that end.

Pinellas has added 116 teachers at elementary and middle schools since spring and are scrambling to keep up with the bookkeeping. A single new teacher costs the district of 103,000 students an estimated $50,000 in salary and benefits.

But districts have been forced to get more aggressive and creative as the final deadline approaches, moving students to new rooms, changing thousands of schedules at the middle and high school levels, "co-teaching" double-sized groups in the same room and enrolling students in virtual classes.

And one student can throw everything off.

For example, a student might be returning to the district from the juvenile justice system or a special-education student needs to be part of a regular class for just one period. Both instances would put a class that otherwise meets the requirements immediately over the limit, Pinellas deputy superintendent Jim Madden said.

And a simple request to change a student's schedule can cause a ripple effect forcing changes to other schedules, he said.

Still, "we have every intention of having everything in place by the time the data is due," Madden said. "I would love to be one of the districts that stands up and says, 'We made class size.' "

Many of the latest problems in Hillsborough turned out to be computer error, like the single classroom over the line Wednesday at Gorrie Elementary, said deputy superintendent Ken Otero. With thousands of classrooms across 250 schools in the 190,000-student district, every keystroke counts.

"You think you're putting in the course code for first period, and it's really second period," he said. "They're working hard and it's a lot of pressure."

Add to that a balky computer system, a "couple of hundred kids a day who are just moving from one school to another," and the dozens of students enrolling or leaving the district, and you get an idea of the logistical nightmare, he said.

Pasco County schools reported Wednesday just 15 classrooms and 50 students over the limit.

Today, schools will aim for none, said spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli.

Times staff writers Ron Matus, Jeffrey S. Solochek, and contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Class-size targets a constant struggle 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 11:02pm]
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