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At Tampa Bay area high schools, many students face class-size pressures

Students occupy the learning lab at Wiregrass Ranch High School on Wednesday. Some students chose to take online classes in the learning lab because the classroom version of the course was filled to capacity under state class-size requirements.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

Students occupy the learning lab at Wiregrass Ranch High School on Wednesday. Some students chose to take online classes in the learning lab because the classroom version of the course was filled to capacity under state class-size requirements.

Forget what you thought you knew about Florida's class-size amendment.

It's not just about all the money districts are spending to reduce student numbers in classrooms, or the statewide ballot item that would roll back the 2002 constitutional amendment to last year's levels.

It's also about Emmy Boyd's schedule.

This week, nearly a month into the school year, the senior at Wharton High in New Tampa was forced to switch sections of her favorite class, forensic science, and drop out of an elective.

Districts will face stiff penalties starting on Oct. 15 if they exceed the current student limit — 25 in high schools.

Emmy was the 26th kid.

"It makes me mad," said Boyd, 17. "I don't think it's fair to promise kids classes at the beginning of school and then pull the rug out."

Officials say balancing classes is always tricky in the fall, with new students enrolling or transferring out daily. But with the class-size deadline looming, that crunch has become a nightmare of last-minute switches, disappearing courses and calls for volunteers to change classes at a handful of crowded schools.

"We've probably made over 100 schedule changes" in lowering around 15 oversized classes, said Al Bennett, principal at St. Petersburg High. "You're with a teacher for the first three weeks of school and then you have a schedule change, and you have to get used to the way another teacher teaches a class."

Some underenrolled classes at the school have been dissolved altogether, he said. And course schedules are becoming less varied as students get turned away from unique courses like the History of Florida that used to work just fine at 33 students.

"We've had a lot of students and parents upset at not getting the class they wanted," Bennett said.

Angela Skane, a junior at St. Petersburg High, had to abandon a partner on the eve of a science presentation after getting a last-minute schedule change.

"We were supposed to present the next day and I couldn't be there, because now I had a math test," she said.

Administrators say they're lowering the number of oversized classes on a daily basis. In the opening weeks of school, around 15 classes were over the limit at St. Petersburg High — more than most high schools across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, but far fewer than a handful of crowded schools across the region.

Wharton High had 28 class sections over capacity, while Riverview High had 53 and Plant High had 101.

Most schedule changes haven't happened yet at Plant, but students have been told to expect some at Monday morning's homeroom meeting, said senior Taylor Kidd.

"I'm assuming it will be a pretty big schedule change," she said. "We're three to four weeks into school, and at least two of my teachers are not passing out textbooks yet. They're printing out individual chapters. It's pretty disconcerting."

Principal Rob Nelson said he's done his best to prepare students, parents and staff.

"Everyone is already anxious," he said. "Are you going to make everyone happy? No. But we'll get it done, I have no doubt of that."

Single sections of some advanced classes are among the hardest for a school to cope with, since there are often not enough qualified students to fill two sections. Offer too many half-full classes and you'll need to hire more teachers.

"AP Calculus, that may be the toughest of all," said Bill Lawrence, director of advanced studies in Pinellas. "You may not have all that many kids who are on that track."

But Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for administration, said the district would protect its most ambitious students.

"We're not going to kick them out because of class size," Brinson said. "We'll add a section first."

In many cases, districts like Hernando and Hillsborough are offering teachers a stipend to teach an extra class during their planning period, and moving teachers in from other buildings to handle the overload.

At Riverview High in Hillsborough, principal Rob Heilmann said he encouraged students to try a virtual or community college course, and asked for volunteers before switching anyone against their will.

Still, more than 200 of his students have endured schedule changes.

"We said, 'Sorry folks, we did our best — and this is final,' " Heilmann said. "Kids have to understand, it's the law."

Freshman Catharina Chipman was the 26th student in her Spanish class at Wiregrass Ranch High in Pasco County. Luckily, she was happy to try the class online through the district's virtual school.

"It's a little bit more independent, but you have 24-7 learning," she said. "I am very glad I chose the online route."

Some teachers and parents are happy with the class-size changes, saying they have allowed more personalized teaching and a broader range of activities.

"To be effective, I feel 18 (students) is perfect," said Michelle Romero, a first-grade teacher at Sand Pine Elementary in Pasco. "More than that and it is extremely difficult to meet the needs of the students as well as we want to."

But other district officials across the Tampa Bay area are backing Amendment 8, a November ballot initiative that would roll the class-size requirements back to last year's schoolwide averages. It would also require that no class exceed the current cap by more than five students at the high school level.

Ken Otero, deputy superintendent in Hillsborough, didn't take sides on that question. But he said schools are struggling this year for all the wrong reasons.

"The driving force is not the quality of the instruction but the number of kids in the classroom," he said. "I have never spent more time trying to balance classrooms and make decisions that I feel aren't in the best interests of a kid, just to meet class size."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Tony Marrero contributed to this report, which includes material from regional editions. Tom Marshall can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or tmarshall@sptimes.com.

Class size snapshot

The process of lowering class sizes at the high school level has led to numerous student schedule changes. Two examples:

St. Petersburg High, Pinellas

15 oversized classes; at least 100 schedule changes

Riverview High, Hillsborough

53 oversized classes; around 200 schedule changes

At Tampa Bay area high schools, many students face class-size pressures 09/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 3:21pm]
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