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Calif. Scurries To Find Space for Students

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California's $1 billion goal of just 20 students in each K-3 classroom promises long-awaited relief for some of the nation's most crowded schools, but it has administrators scrambling to find more space.

Adjustments to libraries, cafeterias, and resource rooms are common in schools across the state rushing to create as many as 20,000 new classrooms. The average primary-school class size has been 28 students. And manufacturers of portable classrooms are hiring new employees, adding shifts, and now projecting that it will take at least seven months to fill any new orders.

"It's been kind of a crunch, but a worthwhile crunch," said Judith Rosen, the principal of the 540-student Jefferson Elementary School in San Francisco. "My head still turns when I see classrooms with fewer students."

States like Florida and North Carolina have put aside money to work year by year to lower class sizes for children in the primary grades. But their efforts, which have also strained already-crowded schools, have not come close to the scale of California's facilities-stretching experiment.

School Windfall

The fiscal 1997 state budget that Gov. Pete Wilson signed in August appropriated $771 million in incentive funding to help schools pay for teachers and other basic costs related to smaller class sizes. The measure has already set off a teacher-hiring spree. ("Class-Size Cuts Set Off Hiring Spree in Calif.," Sept. 4, 1996.)

Another $200 million was set aside for facilities, far below the actual projected costs.

Since then, the Republican governor has found smaller classes to be a political winner--one for which he's eagerly finding more money. Mr. Wilson recently announced that an additional $95 million will be available to buy 2,375 portable classrooms at $40,000 apiece.

As good as that sounds, state education department officials objected because the money will come from $3 billion in bonds approved last March to pay for other school-construction projects.

"We're targeting even more resources to ensure that California's kids get the best educational start possible," Mr. Wilson said.

And at this point, every dollar is bound to help.

In August, state lawmakers failed to get a proposed $4 billion school-facility bond issue on the November ballot. But a big bond issue may still be in the cards next year, and the funding already allotted has almost saturated school-facility officials.

"This will certainly have an effect," said Sen. Leroy F. Greene, the Democratic chairman of the education committee. He said he will push for a special school-bond election next year.

Making Progress

To win the state aid for smaller classes, schools must meet a Feb. 16 deadline for making the reductions. But amazingly, hundreds of schools opened last month with accommodations for smaller classes already in place.

"You must be creative with space that was never big enough anyway," Dorothy Quinones, the principal of San Francisco's Alamo Elementary School, said. Her K-2 class sizes have dropped from a high of 35 students last year to 20 this fall.

Her story is typical of schools that started this fall with an eye toward the new state program.

She created more classrooms by converting a teacher lunchroom and a computer lab. With the help of parents, dividers between two classrooms were reconfigured to create three smaller spaces.

"The day before school, we still had plastic draped all over the place," Ms. Quinones said.

Two new portable classrooms sitting on the playground's kickball field will be wired and ready early next year. For now, two classes that will use the units meet in the cafeteria, where lunch tables and storage cabinets serve as dividers. The arrangement forces the other students to eat lunch in their classrooms.

"There was a lot of confusion before school started," Patty Wong, a parent volunteer at the school, said. "But it's going well. There's less competition for attention. Students don't wait as long to get what they need."

Some districts are moving 9th graders to local high schools and replacing them with 6th graders in new middle schools in order to free up primary school space.

But some districts, in their class-size-cutting zeal, may have gone over the line--like the district that hired two teachers for a room of 40.

Lawmakers responded by passing a bill requiring that each class be self-contained by the 1997-98 school year. Mr. Wilson is expected to sign the bill.

"There's no evidence that you get improvement if you pack kids in classrooms like sardines," Bill Lucia, the chief consultant to the state Assembly's education committee, said. "If you can't do it in the first year, then don't do it."

Public Pressure

But school districts that take it slow can face stiff public pressure.

"It's like a gold rush. There's a mentality that if you don't implement this in September, you're not meeting the intent," said Jerry Livesey, the assistant superintendent for pupil resources with the Pomona district, which will begin its program in February.

The Modesto school board drew criticism in the local press for voting to defer on smaller classes until next year.

Superintendent James C. Enochs recommended the delay, pointing out that the $650-per-pupil bonus from the state is estimated to meet only about 75 percent of actual student costs. And the one-time, $25,000-per-classroom grant for facilities is far short of the $50,000 to $60,000 it costs to transport and prepare a portable for occupancy.

"It's far more important to do this right than do it quickly," said Sen. Greene. "You haven't sprinkled holy water on anybody's head and said this is the magic answer."

Portable Boom

The "gold rush" metaphor also describes the impact that class-size reduction is having on the eight companies that build modular classrooms in California.

These rooms, typically about 960 square feet, are built with high-quality materials and can be permanent, even though they are portable. They rest on concrete or wooden foundations.

Statewide, makers of the portable units plan to more than double production from about 3,500 rooms last year to nearly 8,000 this year. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone want 500 new portable classrooms.

"Next year, we'll really see the impact," said Mike Henning, the general manager and president of Aurora Modular Industries Inc. of Riverside, Calif. "We'll be busier than I've ever seen it. It's really something crazy."

Mr. Henning said his company builds about 450 classrooms in an average year, mostly between May and August.

By fall, he is usually signing pink slips and shutting down operations. But not this year. Instead of laying off employees, he has beefed up his payroll from 120 people to 160, added an afternoon shift, and purchased land to hold new units, which are assembled at a rate of six a day.

He expects to double production next year to about 900 classrooms.

"We're not promising anything until next June, and that's if you get your order in quick," he said.

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