Class-Size Law Looms over Schools; Duval Educators Fret about Smaller Classes, More Teachers Required under Mandate

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim Saunders, Times-Union staff writer

With about 1,400 students, Beauclerc Elementary School is packed.

So as Principal Montelle Trammell ponders how Beauclerc will carry out a new law requiring smaller class sizes, she asks perhaps the most basic question: Where will the Southside school put more teachers and classes?

"I don't even have a closet available, much less do I have a classroom," Trammell said.

For Beauclerc and many other schools in suburban and fast-growing areas of Jacksonville, those types of questions are piling up as administrators begin making plans for next school year.

A new report shows that, in many cases, elementary and middle schools in suburban and high-growth areas have the largest class sizes and will pose the biggest challenges as Duval County tries to comply with the voter-approved law mandating smaller classes.

The report also shows that many of those crowded schools are top performers, receiving A or B grades from the state because of their high test scores. Meanwhile, many schools with smaller classes, particularly in low-income, inner-city areas, haven't scored as well.

In all, the report indicates Duval County will need to spend an additional $137 million and add at least 341 teachers to begin carrying out the class-size law next year.

School officials, who compiled the report and gave it to state lawmakers in late January, say complying with the law will be complicated and expensive, but they don't have a choice.

"The voters have spoken, and we've got to find a way to do it," said Tim Ballentine, the Duval County school system's general director of research, assessment and evaluation.

With supporters touting smaller classes as a way to improve public schools, voters in November approved a constitutional amendment requiring limited class sizes. The state and school districts are required to start phasing in smaller classes this fall and to meet strict size limits in 2010.

Gov. Jeb Bush has interpreted the law to require school officials next year to reduce class sizes by an average of two students districtwide in three categories: pre-kindergarten through third grade; fourth through eighth grade; and ninth through 12th grade.

But in 2010, each class in pre-kindergarten through third grade will be allowed a maximum of 18 students; each class in fourth through eighth grades will have a maximum of 22 students; and each class in ninth through 12th grades will have a maximum of 25 students.

Duval County officials think they can meet requirements for reducing average class sizes districtwide during the next few years. But it will be more difficult to meet the long-term requirements of complying with the strict 2010 limits.

"There's a final reality that's going to hit you," said Stephen Bright, budget director for the Duval County schools.

For elementary and middle schools, the biggest challenges likely will come in suburban and fast-growing areas of the Southside, East Arlington, Mandarin and parts of the Northside and Westside.

As an example, Chets Creek Elementary School, which is off Hodges Boulevard between Beach and Butler boulevards, averages 30 students in its early-grade classes and 27 students in fourth and fifth grades. Similarly, Beauclerc averages about 27 students per class throughout its school.

Among high schools, some of the largest classes are at schools in older neighborhoods. But Bright said that stems, at least in some cases, from those schools choosing to use so-called "block scheduling" -- a system that places students and teachers in fewer classes each day for longer periods of time.

District officials and principals are grappling with numerous questions as they try to figure out how to carry out the class size law. Those questions center on whether they will have enough money, whether they can add classrooms and whether they can hire additional teachers. …