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Pasco schools scramble to meet new class-size restrictions

LAND O'LAKES — After classes ended Friday, Pasco County school officials began the time-consuming job of removing all the registered students who never showed up from their attendance books.

The effort is more critical this year than ever before: Schools must meet voter-mandated class-size restrictions by the time the state officially counts heads the week of Oct. 11.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino is insisting that the school district meet the class-by-class requirements rather than face the penalty of about $3,000 per student over the cap. And she says she's fairly confident this can happen without disrupting kids' education too much.

"Unlike other districts … that are moving students around, we are in the process of moving teachers around," Fiorentino told the School Board on Tuesday. She referred to neighboring Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, which have begun telling families they could not register in certain schools that are overcapacity.

During the summer, principals received set numbers of teaching positions they would be allowed to hire. They also were urged to hold some of those positions open until student enrollment became more certain.

As a result, Fiorentino said, the district has been able to assign unfilled positions to schools with more students than expected, such as Fivay High and Odessa Elementary, without having to transfer teachers.

"We are looking at the schools that are right now of the most critical needs and trying to transfer some units from school A to school B," assistant superintendent Jim Davis said.

That's helping to take care of the extreme cases of classroom crowding, although it does mean some students have to change their course schedules. Davis noted that some kids do not want to switch class periods.

But the district cannot promise students they'll be sitting next to friends or taking a course at a specific time of day, he said, as the focus remains on ensuring they get the classes they need to progress academically.

Board chairman Allen Altman said some parents have raised concerns that their children might not have access to some courses, such as advanced placement or honors, because of the class size rules. They worry that the classes might have too many students to meet the mandate, but too few to validate hiring another teacher, he said.

"I want to be sure we are not doing anything to hinder a student's opportunity," Altman said.

The district is using various options, including hiring part-time teachers and getting current teachers to voluntarily teach an extra period for pay, Davis said. Students can take other avenues, too, such as enrolling in the online version of the course, or taking a dual-enrollment class at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

In the middle schools, the choices are fewer.

The hiring of teachers to part-time slots, usually in one-course increments, is helping, assistant superintendent Tina Tiede said.

"We're in pretty good shape," she said.

But some specialty courses such as Spanish have waiting lists, Tiede said, noting this has happened before. The big difference, she continued, is that many of the teachers for special courses, such as music and art, will need to have certifications to also teach basic courses such as reading or math.

Otherwise, the class size requirements could end up eating away at the electives staff.

Elementary school principals plan to meet this week to discuss how they will deal with the situation when they "get down to one or two more kids and can't afford more teachers," assistant superintendent David Scanga said.

The state will begin processing the official class size data in mid-October and should be done with it on Nov. 12 — 10 days after voters decide whether to continue the rules as-is or to relax them. A judge is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday on whether to allow the referendum, known as Amendment 8, to remain on the ballot.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Pasco schools scramble to meet new class-size restrictions 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 9:02pm]
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