Crowded classrooms prompt class-size concerns

Published Oct. 18, 2018

Reacting to cramped and crowded classrooms, a Fivay High School student created a 5-minute video depicting the situation and urging Pasco County communities to "take action."

The video, which aired in the school news report and is posted on the school YouTube channel, gets some facts wrong. The state hasn't found the school district in violation of the 2002 class-size amendment in years, and the district has not paid fines relating to class size. It also shows a full classroom with two teachers, indicating a co-teaching arrangement allowed by law to meet the mandate.

But it highlights a rising concern among a growing number of Pasco students and educators, who have shared the clip across social media.

The district's use of school-wide averages to calculate class size — a legal method under the state's "schools of choice" law — has created situations that many argue undermines the goal of smaller classes for improved teaching and learning. Districts, which generally have opposed the strictest interpretations of the class-size amendment because of logistical difficulties, take advantage of the provision to save money.

"Our district says we are in compliance with a 'school-wide average,' but that is a joke because it factors in co-teachers and support facilitators, plus all of the teachers in self-contained units in the average," Rushe Middle School teacher Lori Lovetere said via Facebook. "Class-size best practices for middle school is 22, and I have classes that are 33, 32 and 27. Incredibly challenging and not best practices for kids."

Fivay's situation arose primarily because it absorbed nearly 500 students from Ridgewood High, which was converted into a magnet technical school, but did not hire enough teachers to meet the need. Some advertised positions went without applicants.

The administration has since hired instructors for most of the slots, while also working to get classes covered by current teachers rather than substitutes, when possible. No one is blaming the principal, who by all accounts has worked nonstop to support staff and students.

But some students went without permanent teachers and consistent instruction for close to a quarter, which put them behind in key courses such as algebra. Meanwhile, some teachers had class counts of 40 or more.

"One of my friends is over 160 students in five sections of math," said teacher Amy Stagner, who reported one of her Algebra 2 classes at 35 students. "It's crazy."

Trying to manage such a large class while also teaching it is "almost insane," Stagner said. "We know kids don't learn that well in a room that's that full. My attention is constantly being distracted by behavioral issues."

The United School Employees of Pasco leadership has urged the School Board to direct more teachers into the classrooms, even if it means temporarily taking some away from their jobs of coaching other teachers.

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Union member representative Val Smith shared the Fivay video on Facebook, and suggested the price being paid is too high.

School Board vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley didn't disagree. She said she had asked district officials why Fivay ended up with too few teachers, despite being promised increased attention for taking in much of Ridgewood.

She acknowledged such factors as a shortage of teachers nationally — especially in high-demand fields such as math. But Crumbley said the district would seek ways to get more non-classroom teachers back into classrooms wherever feasible.

"It's not going unnoticed," she said.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA: The Pasco County school district is not adopting any policy to govern student use of medical marijuana on school grounds.

Assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley advised the state office of program accountability that the district has concerns that the Florida law governing medical marijuana violates the federal Drug Free Schools and Communities Act, and the Drug Free Workplace Act.

He further noted that the law does not require schools to allow the administration of medical marijuana, and that school nurses might be liable for administering schedule 1 narcotics, which are not permitted in schools.

"The district's practice at this point is to permit the parents of students who have a prescription for medical marijuana that must be administered during the school day to check their student out of school, administer the medication and then check their student back into school," Shibley wrote.

Several districts have taken a similar stance, following the lead of policy-writing consultant Neola. Others, however, have adopted more permissive rules for their students.

The Legislature might revisit the law during its 2019 session. That's why it surveyed all districts about their current procedures.

CHARTER SCHOOL NEWS: Athenian Academy of Technology and the Arts has the opportunity to purchase the property it has leased for the past dozen years.

To make the deal a reality, though, the Pasco County charter school needs to demonstrate financial stability to its potential lender, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That means having a guarantee it will continue to exist, in the form of a 15-year contract with the school district. The school had a five-year deal the School Board approved in July 2016.

If both sides agree, though, state law allows the contract to be modified. The school requested extending its agreement through 2031.

Charter board president James Mathieu told the district in a letter that action was needed soon, as the school's option to purchase the land expires Dec. 31.

Otherwise, he stated, the owner had plans to sell the site to a different buyer.

"We have undergone considerable instructional and programmatic changes over the last four years, better meeting the increased needs of the population we serve, aided by our current low facility expense," Mathieu wrote.

Athenian Academy, located in southwest Pasco, serves just under 400 students — 79 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. It received D and C grades from the state from 2012 through 2016. The past two years, it maintained B grades.

The board had the item on its Oct. 16 consent agenda for approval.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.