The first bell has come and gone at Brooksville Elementary School, and Room 4007 feels unusually roomy. Sherri Hall seems to have a relatively plush teaching gig as she stands in front of 15 third-graders. Every other desk in the room is empty. Then the rest of the class arrives. Hall's co-teacher, Lisa Lucero, brings in another 10 students, and suddenly the room is not quite so spacious. (Three students are absent this day).
A few moments later, Hall is leading a lesson in expository writing, asking students to brainstorm about a person special to them. Lucero walks around the room, looking over shoulders and offering help to stumped students.
Within a half-hour, Lucero takes over, leading a vocabulary lesson while Hall takes a supporting role. Later, the students break into five groups, chatty but clearly on task, while Hall works on a spelling exercise with one student and Lucero tackles a math lesson with another.
"It's organized chaos," Halls says to a visitor.
Double classrooms led by co-teachers like Hall and Lucero have become common at many Hernando elementary schools as the student population has swelled. Now the situation has been compounded by stricter state class-size requirements that took effect in October. The caps set a maximum of 18 students per class in third grade and lower, 22 students in grades 4-8, and no more than 25 in high school.
The district met the class-size standards this year, avoiding potentially heavy fines. With the state's blessing, one of the strategies to meet the ratios — especially in cases of limited physical space — has been to combine classes into one room and assign two teachers. The district doesn't track the number of double classrooms, but there are currently about 400 double-classroom periods at all grade levels, records show.
Can two teachers in a classroom with as many as 44 kids be as effective as one teacher with 22?
Parents and School Board members can be skeptical. But principals, teachers and superintendent Bryan Blavatt say the arrangement can be an effective way to educate children. The key to success, they say, depends on careful planning and the relationship between co-teachers.
"When (teachers) work together voluntarily and mesh with one another, we see some really great results," Blavatt said. "In other situations, we don't see as great results."
Tag-team teachers must mesh well
Last summer, principals like Mary LeDoux at Brooksville Elementary had a talk with their teachers.
The request goes something like this: We don't have the classroom space or the staff to meet the class-size requirements without some double classrooms. Would you consider pairing up with another teacher?
LeDoux put that question to Hall, a 25-year veteran. The school would need to create a double classroom for overflow students in the third grade.
"I said yes and then wondered why I did," Hall admitted as she and Lucero sat in their classroom during a break last week. "I'm used to being the queen bee in the room."
But that summertime trepidation would turn to relief. Hall and Lucero, who spent 20 years in the Navy and started teaching in 2008, clicked.
Though a rookie teacher, Lucero brought strengths in math and science, complementing Hall's skills in reading, writing and social studies. The two have divvied up duties along those lines, but it's not a rigid arrangement.
"I call it tag-team teaching instead of co-teaching," Hall said. "If she thinks of something relevant, she interjects it, and vice versa."
A couple of weeks into the school year, LeDoux told Hall and Lucero that renovations had been completed on a portable classroom and Lucero could have her own room. The two decided they wanted to keep the team arrangement, though they do use the portable to take groups of students for testing. They noted the high marks students were receiving on diagnostic exams.
"You can see that they're learning," Lucero said.
Longtime teachers like Hall can recall standing in front of a class of 30 or more students. Individual attention has always been crucial for success, but today's high-stakes testing and Florida's differentiated instruction model require teachers to zero in on students' weak areas.
Two minds and four hands can make that easier, teachers say.
Jeanette Wadsworth and Karen Ogren were already veteran educators when they started co-teaching together five years ago at Chocachatti Elementary. When the impending class-size requirements and a lack of classroom space became a concern last summer, principal Maria Rybka was grateful the duo decided to keep the arrangement.
"Otherwise we'd have a hardship because it's hard to find three more classrooms," Rybka said.
Wadsworth and Ogren had 32 fifth-graders last year. This year, they call their charges in Room 612 their "Fabulous 42."
That many kids in an average-size classroom sounds daunting and certainly took a creative use of space. But the teachers say they're doing more than just getting by.
"With two of us here, it really allows us to break them into smaller groups where we can work at the level our students need," Ogren said.
The key to any successful classroom environment is structure and routine, but it's especially vital with that many kids, they said. After the students turn in their homework, Ogren starts with English and reading lessons, and Wadsworth pulls out students for math and spelling work. In the afternoon, Wadsworth leads a math lesson, and Ogren pulls out students for remedial work.
Students often work in independent groups "because in life, you have to work together," Wadsworth said, so there can be up to four different groups working in the room at one time.
The relationship between teachers is critical.
"You really need to have someone you are comfortable working with on a day-to-day basis," Ogren said. "You really have to be honest and up front with each other and have similar expectations for the kids."
There are certainly disadvantages. A stack of 42 tests is a lot of grading, even for two teachers. And classrooms can get noisy even when the various groups in the room are working on task.
Teachers and administrators sit down before the first day of school, look at student proficiency levels and behavior patterns, and create double classroom rolls accordingly.
Children handle the larger class size and two-teacher dynamic well, teachers say.
"We spend a lot of time talking about teamwork and how we're like a big family and look out for each other and take care of each other," Ogren said. "Building that foundation right from the start is helpful for them."
Students still get individual attention
School officials look at student performance data to gauge how well specific co-teaching arrangements are working, Blavatt said.
But teachers and principals often have to assuage parental fears that a long roll sheet will automatically shortchange their child's education.
Explorer K-8 principal John Stratton has plenty of experience; his school had 20 double classrooms last year. He tries to keep minds open.
"I do ask parents, let's get to know the teachers, let's get to know the class makeup, and most of the time it works fine," he said. "There are also times where we do decide to make a move. The bottom line is we're going to do what's right for individual kids."
Stratton's daughter is in a co-taught classroom at Challenger.
"I know she's getting the help she needs," he said.
Teachers who find they're not cut out for such an arrangement are reassigned, principals said. But administrators agree that, ideally, all co-teaching situations would be voluntary.
That's why Stratton, who last year had double classrooms in almost every room from kindergarten through third grade, happily reports that the school has just six this year — a feat made possible by the relocation of the Quest Academy for the Gifted to Challenger K-8.
"We're moving in the right direction," he said.
School Board member Dianne Bonfield, who was just re-elected to a second term, campaigned both times on a vow to reduce the number of double classrooms in the district.
Not that Bonfield thinks quality instruction can't happen. Two of her grandchildren are in double classrooms and are getting a quality education, she said.
To Bonfield, it's a question of fairness for students and teachers alike, and it's why she supported the construction of the new, yet-to-be-named K-8 school north of Weeki Wachee, despite a tight operating budget. The elementary portion of the school will open in the fall, and the process now under way to rezone attendance boundaries aims to give much-needed breathing room at schools struggling with space constraints.
"I know teachers do the very best they can, and I think the job has been done quite well. But from a board member's standpoint, I have to look at it and say, it's really not equal," she said. "We have to be about parity at all of our schools."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] (352) 848-1431.