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ELEMENTARY SCHOOL SYSTEMS STRUGGLE TO SHRINK CLASS SIZE.

Byline: Larry Gerber Associated Press

Educators all over California are trying to figure out how to divide 40 kids by two and add one teacher. It may be elementary school, but it isn't elementary math.

The state's new program to reduce class size in the lower grades to no more than 20 pupils has set off a scramble. California's colleges can't turn out enough teachers. Many schools don't have anywhere to put the extra classes.

And while wealthier districts are already hiring staff and ordering portable classrooms, the have-nots are still figuring out whether they can tap into the program's cash incentives to pay for necessary expansion.

``If we are going to do it, we are going to have to be very creative,'' said Maria-Elena Romero, assistant superintendent and business manager of the overstuffed Anaheim Elementary School District.

New state legislation offers $650 a pupil to districts that lower their students-to-teacher ratio to 20-to-1. The average number of students in a class now is just under 30.

Parents, politicians and educators hope the $971 million program will make kids better readers and writers. The National Assessment of Education Progress last year ranked California fourth-graders at the bottom of the class on reading proficiency test scores.

``It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out . . . that if you don't have a facility to teach the extra class in, you can't do class reduction,'' said Kevin Gordon, a spokesman for the state School Boards Association.

Districts that want to qualify must have programs in place by Feb. 16, 1997. Those that can, Gordon predicted, will. It's the deadline that has some administrators worried.

If all 1,000 districts take part, it will mean hiring 6,500 new teachers for kindergarten through third grade.

And theoretically, each new class needs a new classroom. Some early-starting schools have put two classes in one room, at least temporarily. Others bought or leased prefab rooms.

``The districts are all running around trying to figure out where to put these kids,'' said Bill Walters, president of Action Mobile Office Rentals Inc. in Long Beach. ``I've just added 10 employees and gone to 12-hour days plus Saturdays.''

Walters said his whole inventory, ``a couple hundred units,'' was spoken for.

There is enough money in the program to buy 8,000 portable classrooms. Over the next year, the state's two biggest manufacturers will turn out about 5,500 between them, estimated Mike Henning, president of Aurora Modular Industries in Riverside, the No. 2 producer.

Henning and other module makers said they were confident of meeting demand because schools will use much of their classroom money for remodeling rather than modules, since location space is scarce.

Anaheim's schools, for example, are growing at about 5 percent a year, more than twice the state average. This year, enrollment is projected at 19,300, up 1,000.

And in the shadow of Disneyland, growing room is a real fantasy.

``Some districts can reclaim classrooms that are used for something else,'' Romero said. Libraries, auditoriums, and teacher lounges have been suggested as classrooms.

``That's a viable option, but we did that three or four years ago,'' she said. Sixteen of Anaheim's 22 grade schools have also gone year-round, and campuses are already cluttered with portable classrooms.

Rio Linda Union, with 10,000 students in 21 suburban Sacramento schools, already has answers. The board started work on a reduction plan of its own last year, said the district superintendent, William Murchison.

With the new incentives, Rio Linda schools are jumping to reduce students per class in three of their kindergarten through third grades, all this year. Most districts are phasing in the program a year or two at a time.

``Our machinery was already in place . . . so we just went right on ahead,'' Murchison said. Last Monday alone, 100 teachers interviewed for 75 jobs.

When school started later in the week, teachers' lounges had become classrooms. Physical-education times were staggered, as were starting and recess times for classes, so that facilities can be shared.

About 26,000 new elementary teachers are envisioned in the program statewide. Only 5,000 are accredited in California each year.

``That's what made me nervous,'' said Murchison. ``We said, `We've got to get going. If we don't get a jump on it, there won't be enough teachers.' ''

Teachers are already in demand nationally because of the ``mini-boom'' in population, so the program has led to some sniping.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest, sent fliers to 17 Oregon colleges and planned to advertise in Portland's The Oregonian newspaper. It also began enforcing contracts to keep its own teachers from leaving during the term.

Some educators criticized the governor for loosening teacher credential requirements. One of the new measures allows qualified nonteachers to be certified after 120 hours of training and supervised classroom experience.

Most administrators said they hope to avoid that expedient.

San Diego Unified planned to hire as many as 1,100 new teachers this year, including 256 to reduce class sizes, said spokeswoman Norma Trost.

This is the second round of reductions for San Diego, which went two years ago from an average of 30 to 25 in first and second grades.

``A lot of blood, sweat and tears,'' said Trost.

Schools got new teachers, and each teacher got a desk, a chair and books. But there was no extra money for rooms.

Classes were taught on auditorium stages and in libraries, Trost said. Computer labs were closed. And lots of people were unhappy.

``It wasn't so much the issue of reducing class sizes,'' she said. ``It was `You will do this' instead of `Help us make a decision.' ''

Administrators in San Diego, Anaheim and elsewhere were meeting with school site councils of parents and teachers to figure out the best way to make their programs work.

``Some have many options, some have limited options,'' said Trost. ``Some have no options.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 4, 1996
Words:987
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