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Larger U.S. grants, smaller Citrus classes

Much of the school budget news this year has been bad. The tax rate is expected to increase and administrators have predicted little if any money will be available for employee pay raises.

But there is some good news: Citrus schools will receive about $113,000 more than last year in federal dollars designed to reduce class sizes for kindergarten through third grade, U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman's office has reported.

That is enough to hire three new teachers, bringing the total number of teachers hired through the federal grant to 14 for the upcoming school year.

The teaching positions, which are spread among the district's 10 elementary schools, have allowed Citrus administrators to reduce class sizes from an average of about 26 or 27 at the early grades to between 20 and 22, according to Mark Brunner, coordinator of elementary education.

"If you ask a teacher who teaches in a school, they will tell you that that is a significant difference," Brunner said. "I think that when you have 18 (to) 21 class size, that's decent at the elementary level. If you move up to 24 to 25 and above, you feel it. When you get up to 28 (to) 29, that's extremely difficult."

Brunner likened it to having a crowd of people in your home. "If you fill up your living room with 26 people, what does that feel like? What if it were 21?" he said. "The same thing is true of a classroom."

Studies have shown that low class size, especially in the early grades, helps children learn.

"The federal class-size reduction initiative is designed to provide school districts with the resources necessary to hire additional teachers so young children can learn in an environment where they're most likely to succeed," Thurman said in a news release. "Researchers with the U.S. Department of Education have concluded that class size reduction in the early grades is a very direct and effective way to increase student achievement. We need to keep working to achieve this important goal."

This year the Citrus schools will receive $497,155. The allocation last year was $383,841. Statewide, $70-million was provided for the grants, up nearly $14-million from last year.

Local schools can use the money to hire teachers for grades K-3, continue employment of teachers hired previously for the program and/or to pay for teacher certification testing, professional development and training.

Most of the Citrus money will go to salaries and benefits.

"There is a lot more individualization of instruction than what was done in the past and that makes class sizes a lot more important," Brunner said.

The federal program was begun as part of the 1999 U.S. Department of Education Appropriations Act. In the first year, Citrus was able to hire nine teachers; last year two more came on board, increasing the total to 11.

"It's a small piece of the pie, when you look around the district and see how many teachers we have at kindergarten through third grade," Brunner said. "But it helps and if we didn't have it, we'd have to go looking elsewhere to find the money to do this."

The state once provided specific funding to reduce class sizes at the lower grade levels, but that practice ended several years ago.

Brunner said decisions will be made about where to place the new teachers closer to the start of school or shortly after school opens. Officials will determine where the need is greatest.

He said the extra money will be helpful as the district tries to reach the goal of class sizes between 20 and 21 at kindergarten through first grade and 22 to 23 in second and third grades.

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