Pasco schools struggle with class size mandate

NEW PORT RICHEY

Twenty kindergarteners scurried through Melissa Nagel's classroom, putting away materials before heading off to music class at Schrader Elementary. They occasionally bumped into one another as they walked the narrow paths between furniture. The room was noisy, in a cheerful way. After weeks of learning the routine, everyone finally felt in synch. Nagel couldn't imagine her class any other way.

"We wouldn't want a new teacher to come in," said Nagel, the school's kindergarten team leader. "They've bonded. They love the class that they're in."

Florida's class-size law won't allow it, though.

It mandates that no class in kindergarten through third grade have more than 18 students. And Schrader had no wiggle room, with three kindergarten classes of 20, one of 19 and one of 18. It's also near the tipping point for first and second grades, even after bringing in new teachers earlier in the year.

So despite the teacher's willingness to keep 20 children — not to mention her professional belief that moving the youngsters could do more harm than good — Schrader will get an extra teacher for a new kindergarten class before the state's official class-size count.

The district is under the gun to meet the mandate, having failed to do so last year and facing a $4 million fine if it misses again.

"Ideally, I'd like to keep all of these kids right in their classrooms," said Schrader principal Tammy Berryhill, who let the classes sit large expecting them to shrink through usual student mobility. But that didn't happen. "Nobody is complaining. . . . We've got the supplies. The only big deal is the law."

School district officials long have advocated calculating class sizes as a school average. They say the day-to-day movement of students alone makes it nearly impossible to maintain classroom counts as the law requires.

But when state lawmakers asked voters in 2010 to allow districts more flexibility, the referendum won a majority of votes but fell short of the 60 percent needed for approval. In Pasco County, 58.8 percent of voters supported the change.

That has meant daily reassessment of how many students sit in each classroom in every school, and the never-ending attempts to comply. Some schools started early. Others didn't even realize they faced problems until later, as enrollments kept stacking up.

And it has led to some scheduling changes that don't sit well with educators or parents.

Zephyrhills High, for instance, had 25 classes that exceeded the 25-student cap by one or two students. Principal Steve Van Gorden said one girl switched her schedule four times in a week to help the school meet the rules.

Denham Oaks Elementary had the opposite problem of too few children in its classes. It lost a teacher, and children in the class were redistributed into each of the other teachers' rooms.

The only value in such a move, said Tom Barker, executive director of elementary schools, is it allowed another school to meet the state rules.

"If we were able to meet class size on a school average . . . we probably wouldn't have made that decision," Barker said.

Keica St. Romain called School Board members to express her displeasure that her eighth-grade son, Alex, was about to be dropped from his advanced U.S. history course because of class-size concerns. School officials initially told her Alex must take a virtual course, and later offered him a spot in a "regular" course.

St. Romain, who transferred her son to Pine View from a private school specifically for the advanced coursework, opposed both ideas strenuously.

"I want him in the advanced class," she said, noting that she was told Alex was picked for a class change because he was the last student registered in his course. "What is the policy to determine who gets pulled from a class first?"

The school later won an additional teacher, so Alex will stay in his course. But St. Romain said her concerns remained.

District spokeswoman Summer Robertson said the schools have leeway to determine the best way to deal with class size.

"They are trying to minimize the disruption to students," she said. But given the strict state amendment, somebody will have to move from an overcrowded class, and someone will be upset.

School Board members sounded reluctant to impose set rules for schools to split classes for class size.

"We don't have a board policy because every school situation is different," said chairwoman Joanne Hurley. "The only thing that is consistent across the district is that the first option is to ask for volunteers. That definitely is the fairest thing to do."

Board member Steve Luikart said he hoped schools would move away from concepts such as last in, first out, and instead consider each student individually when reorganizing classes.

"The point that we have to get across to all of the schools is to look at the students and what is in their best interest before moving anybody," he said.

Board member Alison Crumbley suggested that the district, supported by parents, might be able to convince Tallahassee leaders to create an exception for classes that are one child over the limit. Schools should not be forced to break up cohesive classes, or to force children into online courses, to meet arbitrary caps or face fines, she said.

"This is common sense," Crumbley said. "We are very frustrated by what is happening this year."

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

Pasco schools struggle with class size mandate 09/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 29, 2012 3:02pm]

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