Class size reduction results in lack of space, teacher shortages.
Thursday, March 19, 1998
In an effort to uplift California''s failing school system, which ranks near the bottom nationally in both standardized test scores and teacher-student ratios, the governor''s plan, unveiled in July 1996, allocates school districts $650 per student in kindergarten through third grade classes containing 20 or less pupils. Additionally, grants are available to defer the costs of adding classrooms.
However, the additional funds fall short in paying for the necessary additional teachers and classroom space, creating deficiencies which, ironically, may potentially reduce the quality of instruction received by students in spite of smaller classes. And, with the state legislature''s failure earlier this month to pass a $9.2 billion bond to pay for new schools, local school officials are increasingly frustrated.
"When the people turn down a bond that would buy more classrooms," says Salinas City Elementary School District Superintendent Jack Marchi, "they''re talking out of both sides of their mouths."
Salinas City Elementary School District has reduced class sizes in kindergarten through second grade, but not in third grade because "we''ve really just ran out of space," says Marchi. "When the kids go to school, there is no playground left for them to play on." Slides, jungle gyms and see-saws have been replaced with temporary classrooms.
School districts around the county are experiencing similar problems. "We''re so overcrowded, we haven''t been able to implement [class reduction] very much; only in the first grade." says Dr. Robert McLaughlin, superintendent of Santa Rita Unified School District in Salinas.
"The biggest challenge to reducing class size has been space," says Dr. Barry Schimmel, superintendent of Pacific Grove Unified School District. "We need about a third more space than we currently have."
When it comes to picking up the tab for new classrooms, the state is going dutch, leaving the districts with a good chunk of the check. Last year, state funding paid $25,000 per temporary building, less than half the price tag, says Ray Arcinas, Santa Rita''s assistant superintendent of fiscal services. The state will pay $40,000 each for buildings purchased this year, but the $15,000 balance of the bill will again be left to the districts.
Because class reduction is not mandatory, but a voluntary incentive program, the legislature is able to get away with providing only partial funding. However, because of overwhelming support of the principle behind the program, 98 percent of California school districts have opted to participate.
The turmoil is largely due to swift deadlines set by the legislature. For instance, in order to qualify the $650 per student payment last year, districts had to have first and second grade classes reduced to 20 by Feb. 16, 1997. With the average state elementary school class containing 30 students prior to the initiative, districts were sent into a tailspin, scrambling to hire teachers and find extra room.
"We have obviously had to pinch here and there," says Arcinas. "We''re having to divert some our resources, such as funds for re-roofing and other projects."
Even worse, the state seems to be giving others the dine-and-dash treatment, sticking the districts with the total bill. "The biggest problem in the plan is facilities," says Carmel Unified School District (CUSD) Superintendent Dr. Joe Jaconette. "The problem we and other districts had to face was that the money to cover new classrooms was not there."
CUSD, the first district in the county and second in the state to reduce class sizes in all four grades, was denied funding from the state for additional classrooms because of restrictions put forth in the program by state legislators. For instance, computer labs, music rooms and middle school classrooms count against districts in the state''s formula for calculating a district''s need for space. Thus, CUSD''s application for state funding was rejected, costing the district hundreds of thousands of dollars which had to be borrowed from private sources.
"They say out of one side of their mouths ''we want to improve technology in the schools,''" says Jaconette, "and out of the other side, they say ''but close down your computer lab and use it for a classroom.'' I frankly don''t think that the legislature or the governor ever realized the way that worked. It''s counterproductive to what the program is supposed to achieve."
"If [class size reduction] had been an educational decision, it would have been better thought out," says Marchi. "I''m afraid it was a political decision. Ideally, I would have liked to have seen a year of planning, time to get the temporary buildings in place and to hire additional teachers."
As for teacher shortages, Monterey County has been luckier than other parts of California. The smaller, more affluent districts, such as Carmel, Pacific Grove and Washington Union, reported no difficulties in hiring fully credentialed teachers.
"This has traditionally been a desirable district to work in; it has a good reputation," says Catherine Gallegos, superintendent of Washington Union Elementary School District which serves the Monterey-Salinas Highway area. "We get a lot of unsolicited applications."
However, other districts in the county have been forced to hire teachers with emergency credentials. Some of them are new to teaching, others are teachers from out-of-state. Through a two-year internship program, the teachers can take night classes to earn their teaching credential while being closely supervised by experienced teachers and administration. Also, substitute teacher lists have been exhausted to fill permanent positions.
Santa Rita''s McLaughlin says the neophyte teachers are scrambling to conduct daily lessons, but are nevertheless doing an adequate job. "They''re not without resources, but they''re probably not terribly creative," he says. "That comes with experience."
Despite the financial hardships and political red tape, educators are confident that class size reduction will benefit students in the long run. "I think we''re going to see students becoming literate faster," says Schimmel, "and less students in remedial reading classes in the second and third grades." However, Schimmel warns, "Just changing the numbers will not guarantee a higher literacy rate. You have to change the delivery."
"The comments that teachers have made indicate that students are getting more individual attention from the teachers," says Gallegos. "They can do more small group work, and the classroom are calmer and quieter."
"The program has been a complete success," says Jaconette. "The youngsters are making tremendous progress. We just had to take a loss. We determined that this was good for the kids. We went into overdrive, we worked all hours to pull the program together."