Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

Pasco schools on track to meet class-size mandates

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school officials juggled students and teachers all week long, with a goal of meeting state class-size rules by Friday's deadline.

Every time they thought they had met the goal, another trouble spot cropped up.

"You can't turn kids and parents away when they show up to register," said assistant superintendent Tina Tiede, charged with managing the effort.

Tiede, who ran updated enrollment reports hourly through the end of classes Friday, expected the district ultimately to have all its classrooms in compliance with the 2002 voter mandate. But success wouldn't come without hiccups.

Gulf Highlands Elementary popped up as being a few students over, but that appeared to be related to computer coding issues that were on their way to resolution. Pasco Elementary, which had no problems on Thursday, landed on the district's noncompliance list midday Friday, prompting anxious phone calls to find out how to fix the situation before day's end.

John Long Middle School, meanwhile, had an extra student show up on Thursday, pushing one class over its limit. School officials jumped on the schedule immediately, getting the student into properly sized classes by Friday morning.

Meeting the state class-size caps of 18 for kindergarten through third grade, 22 for fourth through eighth grades and 25 for high school core courses became a critical piece of the Pasco School Board's budget plan for the current school year. The district did not achieve full compliance a year ago, resulting in the threat of a $4 million state fine.

It was a price board members did not want to pay, given they already were staring down a $25 million shortfall. The only way to reduce that fine by 75 percent was to hit the mark this fall.

Board members agreed to add more than 100 new teaching positions, eliminating other jobs along the way, to put enough teachers into classrooms for students.

Many schools adjusted their classes regularly, starting on the first day of school. Others waited until after the 20th day of school, to have a better understanding of how many students they actually had.

Some principals were surprised, as their enrollments grew faster than expected. Wiregrass Ranch High and Seven Springs Middle were among those that exceeded their projections and kept growing. Online courses were one of the tools they used to keep class sizes down.

Schrader Elementary, by contrast, did not experience the student movement it usually sees, as students did not move away. Its large kindergarten and first-grade counts remained large, forcing the school to add a first-grade class and to bring in a long-term substitute to offer small-group instruction moving among three classrooms.

Only one kindergartner changed classrooms.

Sand Pine Elementary, another school that had early class-size troubles, dissolved one kindergarten class because of lower than anticipated enrollment. That teacher moved to a shared fifth-grade classroom, to deal with more students than expected at that level.

Schrader principal Tammy Berryhill and Sand Pine principal Todd Cluff both expressed concerns that the shifting might interfere with student learning. But they found solutions that limited the disruptions, which made them more accepting of the moves.

District officials have said several times that they would prefer the flexibility of measuring class size as a schoolwide average, rather than as a room by room count. Voters have rejected that change, though, forcing districts to keep scrambling for compliance. The effort will continue into the spring.

"As kids register, the schools are going to have to decide once again how to meet class size," Tiede said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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