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San Diego Board Mulls Big Class-Size Cuts in Grades 1-3

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The San Diego school board is considering a proposal to dramatically reduce class size in grades 1 through 3 next school year by reallocating $9 million in resources.

Superintendent Bertha Pendleton last week presented the board with details of how the district can shift 131 positions and $1 million in textbook money to come up with the 180 additional teaching slots that will be needed to cut class size to 25.5 students per teacher.

Teachers' union leaders have reacted cautiously to the plan, especially to a proposal to scrap dozens of teaching jobs that free up regular teachers for class preparation.

The early-grades reductions are the first step in a "classrooms first'' policy adopted by the school board late last year that would reduce the average classroom size over the next four years. The plan would require the creation of 556 teaching positions at a cost of $27.8 million.

Currently, classes up to 3rd grade have as many as 32 students, while secondary classes have more than 36 students. The new policy would bring down those numbers to between 18 and 24 students, depending on the grade level.

Ron Ottinger, the vice president of the school board who proposed the plan, said he was motivated by the complaints he heard from voters last fall, when a voucher initiative was on the California ballot. "Anybody who was out walking the precincts during Proposition 174,'' he said, "knows that the major complaint the public has is that too much money is being spent away from kids in the classrooms.''

The move to reduce class size comes as the district is facing a budget deficit of $5.3 million and a projected shortfall of $32 million over the next four years. In addition, enrollment is growing, and many schools are becoming overcrowded.

Despite these constraints, Mr. Ottinger said he felt it was imperative to act. "In times of adversity comes creativity,'' he said.

'Noble Experiment'

Under the board's policy, the district will use existing resources to fund as many of the new positions as possible. Nearly 30 percent of all staff members in the city school district who hold teaching credentials are working outside the classroom, Mr. Ottinger estimates.

The superintendent's recommendations involve shifts in virtually all aspects of the district's operations. In addition to creating 180 teaching positions in grades 1 through 3, the plan calls for adding 93 positions in schools that receive substantial amounts of federal Chapter 1 money.

The largest group of employees to be affected are elementary preparation-time teachers, who teach music, art, computers, and physical education so that classroom teachers can have an hour of preparation time each week. The plan would eliminate 56 such positions.

It also calls for cutting five guidance counselors, three nurses, and seven psychologists. Most of the cuts would be in the central office.

"Proposed effects of the proposal on employees include layoffs, demotions, reassignments, transfers, and assignments of new roles and responsibilities,'' says a memorandum outlining the reallocations.

While many parents have been enthusiastic about reducing class size, some employees of the district have not been as supportive.

The San Diego Teachers Association, concerned about cutting class sizes so dramatically at a time of projected budget deficits, is urging the district to go slow, said William Crane, the group's president.

"This is a noble experiment, a real effort to try to convince the public that we are trying to make a brave effort to move more of the resources to people that have direct contact with students,'' he said. "I'm just concerned about having all the pieces together before we make this jump.''

In particular, Mr. Crane said, the teachers' association will not lightly give up the preparation time for elementary teachers, which it spent 20 years trying to get.

The proposed change must be negotiated with the union.

"This will put to an even greater test the whole collaboration effort that the district and the teachers' association have been involved with for the last four or five years,'' Mr. Crane said.

Instructional Impact

The class-size reductions are to take place in existing school facilities, using extra classroom space, guidance offices, auditoriums, and other areas to reduce the student-teacher ratio specifically in language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.

The plan will mean that most schools will have to change their instructional programs, because teachers will have to work together in the same classrooms during certain times of the day.

The district plans to offer workshops for teachers this spring on how to reorganize their programs, modeled after some schools that are using innovative schedules.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the 1994-95 plan next week.

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