Byline: MARY KELLI PALKA
In Toyetta Nealey's second-grade classroom at Rutledge H. Pearson Elementary, 17 students is just the right size.
It's perfect for putting children in groups of three or four to work on writing assignments or little projects - like making a recycling bin. And when they all come together on the rug for stories and other lessons, there's just enough room for everyone.
"We've got the gathering," Nealey said. "They can all fit on the carpet."
Smaller class sizes helped the school move from an "F" grade three years ago to an "A" last year, said Principal Debbie Crotty.
The impact has been so great, Crotty would rather give up other resources to balance her budget than lose even a single teacher.
"In order for children to make truly systematic learning gains, class size has to be what it is now," she said.
But maintaining small classes in every school comes with a stiff pricetag. Meeting state standards scheduled to kick in next school year will cost Northeast Florida districts an estimated $36 million, mostly to hire about 575 more teachers.
It'll be difficult to plan where to place those teachers since many schools don't have a solid idea of who's going to show up the first day of class until that first day.
And because tougher class size limits are coming at a time when school budgets are shrinking, which has already caused some schools to cut electives, it'll leave some students with fewer class options. But it would also put an end to the practice of having 40 students in a Spanish class, like the one currently offered at Mandarin High.
Schools statewide have already spent at least $16 billion to meet the requirements since voters, eager to improve the quality of public education, approved a class size amendment in 2002. The Florida Department of Education is asking the Legislature for another $3 billion - much of it for new teachers - to continue the effort next year. Districts say the money they receive isn't enough to cover their costs.
Statewide, a third of all core classrooms, including math, science and reading, would be over the class size limit for 2010-11, according to a state simulation using this year's enrollment numbers. In Northeast Florida, one-third of about 70,000 core classrooms would be considered overcrowded.
New or expanded schools, additional teachers, boundary adjustments and changes in enrollment trends will all have an impact on class sizes next year.
This year, schools must have small class sizes - no more than 18 children through third grade, 22 children in fourth through eighth grades, and a cap of 25 in high school - based on school-wide averages. So one class can be larger if another is under the cap. But next year, there's no averaging: Every class must have no more students than the cap allows.
Many educators and state leaders are pushing now to maintain the flexibility principals currently have - at least until the budget pressures ease. That's necessary, they say, because state education funding has been cut for the last few years because of the recession.
The issue will likely return to the ballot in November, with voters being asked to freeze the key reform they embraced eight years ago.
"Ideally, we'd love to have 25 kids in a classroom," said Mandarin High Principal Donna Richardson. "But the state of Florida can't afford it."
'LOOKING AT THE WHOLE CHILD'
There's no clear evidence that class sizes as set by Florida voters equal a better education for students. National studies disagree.
Some of Northeast Florida's highest-performing schools have some of the largest class sizes in the area, according to the state's simulation. And some of them have some of the smallest class sizes.
In general, "A" schools in the six area districts have larger classes, with 32 percent of core classrooms over the limit in the simulation compared with 19 percent of "F" schools. …