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Officials, parents worry how to deal with looming class size caps

TAMPA — Hillsborough schools are not finding easy answers in the push to prepare for hard class-size caps next year.

Should students, for example, still be guaranteed seats in their neighborhood schools?

What happens when a family with two children moves to a neighborhood mid-year, but the school only has room for one?

Should a high school athlete be ruled ineligible to play when class size limits bounce him from school to school?

A committee of educators, parents and community members wrestled with those questions Wednesday. The group is expected to provide recommendations to superintendent MaryEllen Elia this fall.

No one knows exactly what to expect next school year. The Legislature could delay for a second year the strictest phase of the 2002 constitutional amendment — the classroom by classroom head counts, currently slated to kick in next fall.

For now, Hillsborough is planning for a worst-case scenario.

That could involve a family of four moving here mid-year only to discover its neighborhood school has room for just one child. Rather than burden the school principal or front office secretary, the committee suggests sending them to a specialized counselor to review options.

"You can either have two kids at two different schools, or send them to a different school," said Deidra McDonald, an elementary teacher involved in the planning group.

But before turning children away, the committee wants schools to exhaust all options. These could include co-teaching, floating instructors and even asking students to take some classes online.

Another vexing question: Should students be guaranteed a place in their neighborhood schools when the district may not be able to keep its promise once hard class caps go into effect?

School officials are most concerned about students who move into the community after the school year is under way. But some committee members also worry about a large class at one grade level moving up, making it difficult to meet the cap.

"I don't know that we have to panic about that," said Cathy Valdes, Hillsborough's chief facilities officer, noting that schools have adjusted for grade-level differences for years. "Certainly, if the students are already enrolled there, then we have an obligation."

The fate of the so-called 19th child — the student who arrives and puts a school one student over the cap — remains far from settled. If the child gets assigned to another school with space, can the student come back when a seat opens up a few weeks later?

"To me, that's a record-keeping nightmare," said Josie Sanders, the district's general director of middle school education.

"From the parent's perspective, I would want to come back when the seat pops open," said Heidi Ake, who has children at Lake Madgalene Elementary and Chamberlain High.

The committee left that discussion for another day. But the clock is ticking for a group that seeks to complete its recommended guidelines before the district begins assigning students for next school year.

Adding to the difficulty of the task, the state has not told districts how it will go about assessing class size compliance.

This much is certain: The amendment set a deadline to impose hard ceilings on class sizes by the start of the 2010-11 school year.

At that time, classes are limited to 18 students in prekindergarten to third grade, 22 students in fourth to eighth and 25 students in high school.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Officials, parents worry how to deal with looming class size caps 10/08/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 7:03pm]
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