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Tampa Bay school districts strain under class-size deadline

One problem is resolved, and another pops up.

That's what the race to comply with Florida's class-size initiative has become for Tampa Bay school districts: a high-stakes game of Whack-A-Mole.

Officials say they have every intention of meeting a Friday deadline to lower class sizes to new limits of 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth, and 25 in high school.

"They have plans in place," said Summer Romagnoli, a spokeswoman for the Pasco County School District, which reported just 15 classrooms and 50 students over the limit Wednesday.

"Tomorrow (schools) will be making them compliant," by reassigning the children to different classes, she said.

But daily enrollment changes and data entry glitches are making it hard to reach the goal of absolute compliance — not one student above the limit — that allows districts to avoid stiff financial penalties and reap up to $35 million in state reward money.

Pinellas County reported 82 classrooms out of compliance Tuesday, while Hillsborough counted just six aside from those in charter schools, which aren't required to meet the new limits.

But by Wednesday, Hillsborough's number had jumped to 16 class sections at 13 different schools.

Many of those new problems turned out to be computer error, like the single classroom over the line Wednesday at Gorrie Elementary, said deputy superintendent Ken Otero. With thousands of classrooms across 250 schools in the 192,000-student district, every keystroke counts.

"You think you're putting in the course code for first period, and it's really second period," he said. "They're working hard and it's a lot of pressure."

Add to that a balky computer system, a "couple of hundred kids a day who are just moving from one school to another," and the dozens of students enrolling or leaving the district, and you get an idea of the logistical nightmare, he said.

Districts have hired additional teachers and built new schools to satisfy the requirements of the 2002 law. Hillsborough has spent around $1.5 billion in state money since it passed.

But officials have been forced to get more creative as the final deadline approaches, moving students to new rooms, changing thousands of schedules at the middle and high school levels, and "co-teaching" double-sized groups in the same room.

Pinellas officials have added 116 teachers at elementary and middle schools since spring and are scrambling to keep up with the bookkeeping.

"Pinellas County schools expect to make class size," said spokeswoman Andrea Zahn, "but it requires massive collaboration between schools and district staff to monitor this on an almost hourly basis."

Times staff writers Ron Matus, Jeffrey S. Solochek, and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Tampa Bay school districts strain under class-size deadline 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 10:16pm]
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