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Fla. Class-Size Mandate Sends Districts Scurrying

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Nobody had to tell Superintendent Cynthia Pino of the Volusia County, Fla., school district that the state's classrooms are overcrowded.

In a state where 25 percent of the students attend schools with 1,500 pupils or more, many teachers and administrators are faced with too many students in too little space every day.

Ms. Pino is among the school leaders struggling this fall to put into place a new state policy based on the belief that children learn better in smaller classes. The policy calls for all 1st-grade classes to be limited to 20 students beginning this year, with the cap extending to 2nd-grade classes next year, and to 3rd grade in the 1997-98 school year.

But, Ms. Pino said, "When you're in a district like ours that gets 2,000 new students every school year, and you already have 700 portable classrooms, we have to ask ourselves, 'Where are we going to put the students?"'

The state education department is surveying each school district to find out how the policy is working in 1st-grade classrooms.

Link Jarrett, the director of education policy for the department, said he agrees with the policy, but he acknowledged that reducing the student-teacher ratio has been difficult because of space shortages. He said districts unable to reduce class sizes because of limited facilities could meet the state requirement by adding a teacher's aide for every 10 students above 20.

But Ms. Pino said the policy may not be right for her 57,000-student district because it lacks flexibility on the local level.

"The mandate took away local decisionmaking," she said. "Some of it didn't make sense to us,like why they didn't include kindergarten."

Buying Room

Rep. Deborah James-Horan agreed that finding space for more classes has been difficult but said people support the class-limitation policy. Voters in her district just approved a half-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for school construction and renovation.

Rep. James-Horan, a Democrat, said her constituents in Key West want what is best for students even if it means paying more taxes. Pointing out that the sales-tax increase passed 3 to 1, she said: "I think the people have sent a clear mandate that [reducing class size] is the right thing to do."

But Ms. Pino said schools are struggling to add classes with the money the state allocated.

The state legislature approved $40 million for the first phase of the policy last spring after a drawn-out battle between House Democrats who were pushing the plan and Senate Republicans who opposed it. The Republicans contended that schools did not have space for smaller 1st-grade classes and would end up crowding other elementary students.

The plan will cost $80 million in its second year and $100 million in its third, according to Rep. John Rayson, who sponsored the bill setting up the class-reduction program.

Rep. Rayson said the bill was based largely on research done in Tennessee by the Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio project. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

Researchers working on Project STAR have tracked classes of 15 to 17 students in 79 schools across Tennessee since 1985. They found that not only do students learn more in smaller classes, but they also continue to show greater achievement than their peers after they return to larger classes.

The 1,300-student Seminole, Fla., school district has been experimenting with smaller classes for a few years. Betty Smith, the district's curriculum director, said the smaller classes have been working well. But, she said, "We were lucky that we had enough space to expand."

And despite any problems, Rep. James-Horan said she believes in the policy. "When we get down to discussing a 20-1 student-teacher ratio, what we need are classrooms to put those teachers in," she said. "But this policy is what we need to allow students the greatest opportunity to learn."

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