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Sand Pine Elementary deals with class size limit plus one

WESLEY CHAPEL — The numbers couldn't have worked out any better for Sand Pine Elementary.

The school had six first-grade classes, 108 first graders. That meant 18 children per teacher — exactly what the 2002 Florida class size amendment set as the maximum allowed.

Then came a family from up North. They moved to the Meadow Pointe subdivision to stay with relatives, and they came to principal Todd Cluff to register their daughter for classes.

The girl is a first-grader.

She begins school on Monday. And Cluff needs to figure out what to do with her.

If this were a year ago, Cluff wouldn't have needed to worry. The state's class size rules applied as a school average, meaning one extra first-grader could be offset by an open second-grade seat, which Sand Pine has plenty of.

But things are different this year.

Despite constant requests over seven years to relieve them of the looming "19th child" problem, superintendents and School Board members never persuaded lawmakers to rewrite the amendment's implementation language. As a result, the state began counting children classroom by classroom, hour by hour, with the current academic year.

The official head count takes place in mid October. Every student over the limit means a penalty of about $3,000.

Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino has vowed to comply, sending a letter to families last week letting them know it might mean shifting classrooms and teachers to make the numbers work. And unlike superintendents in some neighboring districts, Fiorentino has insisted the district won't turn students away from schools just because of class size.

Hence Cluff's dilemma.

"We're only one child over our limit," he said. "This is where it shifts from the theoretical to practical as far as what we're going to do."

David Scanga, the district's assistant superintendent for elementary schools, plans to meet with Cluff and other principals in a similar situation this week to discuss the details. He said he expects each school to come up with a slightly different plan, based on its specific needs.

For Sand Pine, Scanga envisioned a handful of possibilities.

One solution might be to create a multigrade class of first- and second-graders. Sand Pine also has six second-grade classes, but just 97 second-graders — which means 11 open seats.

This move could require teachers to assess several students' abilities to determine which children would perform best in such an environment. At least one teacher likely would need to change her lessons to encompass standards from both grade levels, something the district has moved away from in recent years.

"Another option is to give (the school) another teacher," Scanga said. "But think about the costs of that. We have to be efficient with who we have in a building."

Cluff agreed that hiring another teacher at a minimum of $50,000 for salary and benefits did not make sense to deal with one child.

"Another option is we just take the penalty," he said. "Heather has said that's not what we're looking to do. But we will have to make that decision when the time comes."

Such discussions pain Michelle Romero, a first-grade teacher who has worked at Sand Pine since it opened more than a decade ago.

When a new student arrives in her classroom, Romero said, she thinks about assigning a buddy, giving the child all the key papers and folders, tailoring instruction to the youngster's needs. Sand Pine's culture is one of welcoming every student, she said, and making him or her feel as if no one is more important.

"The last thing I'm going to be thinking is, 'That's No. 19. What am I going to do?' " she said.

Despite all that, Romero firmly supports smaller class sizes.

"To be effective, I feel 18 is perfect," she said. "More than that and it is extremely difficult to meet the needs of the students as well as we want to."

Small classes matter, Romero concluded, but meeting student needs matters as much.

In an ideal world, Scanga said, the two would not compete. But money is limited, and the class size amendment is unyielding.

"Basically, when it comes down to one extra kid in a classroom, it definitely triggers a reaction which, in my mind, is not a best practice," he said. "Are there choices? Yes. Are they the best choices? No."

State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said Sand Pine's situation encapsulates the need for amending the class size law. Weatherford is leading an effort to relax the mandate so schools could continue to implement class sizes using a schoolwide average, with no classroom to exceed the existing cap by more than three students.

He called it "insane" that a school should have to struggle with such big decisions simply because one extra child arrives at the doors.

"I'm not saying class size doesn't matter at all," said Weatherford, the House sponsor of Amendment 8, which goes to voters on Nov. 2. "But it's not something we should be putting all of our resources into."

Cluff said he would like to have more flexibility in deciding how to deal with his newest first-grader. It would be easier, he said, if a few more children over the cap would come to Sand Pine, to justify another position, or if the situation would resolve itself in some other way.

If there's a silver lining, he said, it's that the count is still a month away: "The good news is, I don't have to decide right now."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

Sand Pine Elementary deals with class size limit plus one 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 2:51pm]
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