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Pinellas stumbles in class sizes

Published Dec. 1, 2006

Eighteen Pinellas schools are falling short of the state's class-size requirements, including several of the district's most popular schools.

Seventeen elementary schools and one middle school have more students than the 2002 constitutional amendment allows, the state Department of Education reported this week. Only the Orange County School District has more schools out of compliance, with 31 missing the mark.

Since class-size calculations toughened this year from districtwide to schoolwide averages, the news wasn't totally unexpected, said Doug Forth, an assistant superintendent in charge of budgeting for Pinellas schools.

"As anyone who was doing anything with class size indicated, the school average would be a much more difficult standard than the district average," Forth said. "I guess we've proved them right."

Despite the high number of Pinellas schools that are out of compliance, the averages at many are only slightly above what the law prescribes.

Garrison-Jones Elementary's student-teacher ratio for fourth and fifth grades, for example, is 22.03 students, barely above the 22-student maximum. Seminole Elementary's average is 22.24.

But six of the schools appear to be further from the mark this year than they were last year. Bay Point, High Point, Skycrest, Westgate, Douglas L. Jamerson Jr., and Curtis Fundamental elementaries all have higher student-teacher ratios for some grades than they had in 2005-06.

Forth said the district is trying to determine why there are variations from school to school, and why all six of the district's fundamental elementary schools are on the list.

Kristen Sulte, principal at Bay Vista Fundamental, suspects part of the reason her school is struggling to get its numbers down is its popularity with parents. Every time a student has left before the natural progression to middle school, there has been a student on the waiting list ready to take his or her place, Sulte said.

That practice ended this year at Bay Vista and at some other schools. "The district actually said, 'Stop enrolling students,'" said Michael Miller, principal at Southside Fundamental.

"We did our best to meet the goal, but apparently we're not there yet."

While 177 public schools remain out of compliance statewide, districts have shown "significant progress" in reducing class sizes, according to the DOE. Since February 2003, grades K-3 have been reduced by 6.12 students, and grades 4-8 have been reduced by 4.75 students. High schools have been reduced by 1.91 students.

"We won't be 100 percent satisfied until every school has come into compliance," said DOE spokeswoman Cathy Schroeder. "But I think this shows the districts have worked very hard."

For the past three years, class-size compliance has been determined by a districtwide average. This is the first year compliance has been measured at the school level. Beginning in 2008, class-size limits will have to be met in individual classrooms, with 18 pupils in grades K-3, 22 in grades 4-8 and 25 in high school.

That's when things will get really tricky, Forth said.

"From the beginning, we've been spending additional money on teacher units," he said. "Each year we have put anywhere from 100 to almost 200 new teachers out there."

The effort has been costly. Forth estimates the district will have spent close to $300-million by 2008. He expects the district will spend $34-million over the next three years on additional teachers alone.

Districts have good reason to try their best to meet the requirements. Florida statutes require a "budget modification" for those that fail to reduce school-level class-size averages. That could mean mandatory shifts in how districts spend state money.

Districts that disagree with the DOE's class size compliance decisions have until Jan. 2 to submit an appeal. Along with the appeal, they must file documentation that shows "extenuating circumstances," such as unexpected student growth.

Forth said the Pinellas County School District likely will appeal in some cases.

Donna Winchester can be reached at (727) 893-8413 or Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

fast facts

Two districts pass muster

Of the five local school districts, only Hernando and Pasco appear to meet class size requirements this year. Pinellas fares worst, with 18 schools over the allowed number of students.

PK-3 4-8 9-12 Total

Citrus 0 0 1 1

Hernando 0 0 0 0

Hillsborough 1 1 1 3

Pasco 0 0 0 0

Pinellas 6 12 0 18

Fast facts

History of class size amendment's approval

Florida voters approved the class-size amendment in 2002, limiting class size by the 2010-11 school year to 18 students per teacher in prekindergarten through third grade; 22 students per teacher in grades 4-8; and 25 students per teacher in high school.

Here is the time line:

District level compliance: beginning in 2003-04

School level compliance: beginning in 2006-07

Classroom level compliance: beginning in 2008-09

These are the Pinellas schools the state says are out of compliance with its time line:

- Bay Point Elementary

- Bay Vista Fundamental

- Frontier Elementary

- Garrison-Jones Elementary

- High Point Elementary

- Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary

- Lakeview Fundamental

- Madeira Beach Elementary

- Oakhurst Elementary

- Orange Grove Elementary

- Curtis Fundamental Elementary

- Pasadena Fundamental Elementary

- Plumb Elementary

- Seminole Elementary

- Skycrest Elementary

- Southside Fundamental Middle

- Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary

- Westgate Elementary

Source: Florida Department of Education