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Schools scramble to shrink classes as students start this week

Nutrition and wellness instructor Marilyn Davis teaches a class with 34 students at Wiregrass Ranch High School. Many elective courses are not required to meet the class size law.


Nutrition and wellness instructor Marilyn Davis teaches a class with 34 students at Wiregrass Ranch High School. Many elective courses are not required to meet the class size law.

TAMPA — Every day, twice a day, Karen Bass turns all her attention to a single chart in her Bryant Elementary School office.

On it are the school's latest enrollment figures, and they've got the Bryant principal on edge.

Why? She has just five seats open in kindergarten and six in fourth grade. If too many more show up, Bass isn't sure what to do with them.

"We don't have any more classrooms," she said.

As thousands of students start classes this week, Florida schools are embarking on the final stage of the state's ambitious, $19 billion investment to shrink class sizes.

Reducing the size of classes is one more piece in the state's aggressive push to improve student performance. But in this case, voters have made it a top priority, approving an amendment to make it part of the state Constitution — with specific caps and a mandate to spend what it takes.

In a state that for years has struggled with crowding as new children arrived in droves daily, the notion of cutting the numbers of kids per classroom is appealing to many teachers, parents and students.

"With a lot of people, it feels congested," said Cory Newell, an eighth-grader at John Long Middle School in Pasco County. "You don't get as much help from the teacher."

But as schools confront the reality, they are having to make unpleasant choices. Some have stopped accepting students and put up "no vacancy" signs. Others are doubling up teachers in classrooms or have put more students into electives like drama or weightlifting that don't fall under the class-size rules.

And as kids come and go, school officials fear they will be performing a never-ending juggling act, and in the end, some say, the students will pay most as they get moved from class to class, teacher to teacher.

"The downside of the class-size amendment is the impact it's having on students if we have to move students around," said Westchase Elementary principal Scott Weaver, whose school is on a Hillsborough County watch list for exceeding student capacity.

And all this work still could be undone by voters. On Nov. 2, they'll decide whether to scale back the requirements from classroom caps to school-wide averages.

Early polls have indicated that changes aren't likely to win the needed 60 percent of votes. That hasn't stopped superintendents from wondering why the penalties take effect in October rather than waiting to see the outcome of the referendum. All the while, though, principals continue to evaluate their rosters and hope that each new arrival doesn't push their classrooms over the caps.

In Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, some schools have stopped registering new students, sending them to other schools. Choice has practically disappeared in those counties, as well as Pasco and Hernando, as popular schools turn away students who live outside their attendance zones.

"It is very difficult sticking to the 25:1 ratio, especially when students keep coming in and we don't know when it's going to stop," said Christen Tonry, principal of the highly sought-after Palm Harbor University High School.

Instead of rejecting students, the school asked teachers to voluntarily teach an extra period for extra pay to cover the added classes. So far, 33 have offered.

But those scenarios haven't deterred some parents from their support of small classes.

Pasco mom Melaney Lozier said she would back even lower numbers in classrooms despite her inability to get her daughter, Kyra, into the school of her choice.

Eighteen is too many kids for a kindergarten teacher, Lozier said. "I think 14 would be even better."

She wound up sending her daughter to Odessa Elementary, a brand new campus built to alleviate crowding at nearby schools in the Land O'Lakes-Trinity corridor. Still under capacity, Odessa opened with dozens more students than expected, forcing principal Teresa Love to request more teachers in order to meet the class-size rules.

Pasco schools, which opened Monday, offered a peek into what lies ahead for other school systems as they resume classes this week.

Students and parents have been warned that there are no guarantees they'll have the same teacher and classmates on the fifth week of classes that they had on the first day. They might not get into the electives they want or need if the numbers of students don't match available teachers. Some students will find themselves learning online if the class they require is full.

And some schools have moved to co-teachers, effectively doubling the number of students they can house in a classroom.

The rush to meet class-size requirements under the Legislature's threat of potentially budget-damaging financial penalties has organized teachers associations crying foul. They've contended that lawmakers who dislike the class-size amendment on principle aimed to scare voters into supporting Amendment 8 by failing to adequately fund the measure, then forcing districts into tough actions that affect kids and families.

Backers of the changes to the amendment counter that nothing could be further from the truth. They have said they simply want to add flexibility to the rules, so that schools aren't pushed to readjust schedules and classes when a classroom exceeds the constitutional cap by one child.

Schools still would have to maintain lower class sizes, they say, just with more wiggle room allowed by school-wide averages.

Whatever the outcome of the Nov. 2 vote, it won't come soon enough for schools that resume instruction in August and have to submit their classroom head counts in October.

"We are going to do everything we possibly can to meet it," said Heather Martin, executive director of business services for Hernando schools. "But long term, if we don't get some flexibility with the averages and we have to continue at the classroom level, we can't afford nor do we have the space to meet it."

It has become a numbers game, one that principals such as Bryant Elementary's Bass have been playing very carefully.

"Really, we're doing pretty well," she said. "I could use a couple more rooms, though."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at


Total spent so far statewide on class-size expenditures. $16.5 billion to hire teachers or for other operating costs, and $2.5 billion for construction


The budget for this year


How much more is needed to meet class-size requirements


Class size

• Florida voters approved the original amendment in 2002, 52 percent to 48.

• It limits the number of students in core classes to 18 in grades K-3, 22 in grades 4-8 and 25 in grades 9-12.

• Districts must meet the requirements in every classroom by the October student count or face hefty fines. They could appeal, but those that fail would have to file an action plan to the state by Feb. 15.

• Amendment 8 on the Nov. 2 ballot would increase the classroom caps and allow schools to average their class sizes.

• The Florida Education Association opposes Amendment 8. Associations representing school boards and superintendents support it.

Schools scramble to shrink classes as students start this week 08/20/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 22, 2010 12:27am]
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