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New standard will be a challenge in Pinellas

Published February 19, 2006

Florida school districts are having little trouble getting their class sizes down to the standard now required by the 2002 constitutional mandate.

But that will change soon enough.

Come August, the standard changes from a districtwide average to a school average, which will be more difficult to achieve. That will hit some local schools hard, particularly in Pinellas County.

Pinellas currently has 55 schools that would violate the mandated class size for grades 4-8, and 40 that are above the requirement for K-3, according to the state Department of Education. Some of the differences are minor, others less so.

Two of the biggest offenders are John Hopkins Middle School in south St. Petersburg, with classes averaging 35.4 students, and Leila G. Davis Elementary School in Clearwater, with class size averages of 32.5 in fourth and fifth grade and 21.1 in K-3.

By comparison, much larger Hillsborough County has 18 schools above the 4-8 mark and 17 over the K-3 target. And the worst violators, including Oak Park Elementary School in Tampa, are slated for relief through new schools planned for construction in the next three years.

Schools that do not meet the constitutional caps must reduce their class size averages by 2 students each year or face penalties.

Rep. Joe Pickens, the Republican chairman of the House Education Appropriations Committee, says some students and parents are facing difficult changes, including redrawn attendance boundaries.

"That's the most painful process in the public school system," said Pickens, a former school district attorney.

Officials in local school districts say they are trying to avoid the most dire consequences.

"We are in the process of creating scenarios that will allow us to substantially meet the requirements," said Jan Rouse, an associate superintendent in Pinellas. That includes building new classrooms.

But school choice, designed to maintain racial diversity, limits the district's options, she said.

The district must honor the agreement it made with the community to get released from decades of court-ordered busing for desegregation. So parents must continue to have meaningful options for their children's education, Rouse said.

For some children, however, "their choices are going to be more limited as we look at the class size requirements."

Pinellas officials say the district will need 19 additional classrooms to meet the amendment's requirements. They are considering building a new school at the old Lealman Intermediate site, and also have plans to rebuild or add on to 15 existing campuses in the next five years.

That doesn't necessarily spare John Hopkins Middle and Leila Davis Elementary, though.

Each is highly popular - Leila Davis receives top marks from the state every year and John Hopkins is the district's only arts magnet middle school. Each also is over capacity - John Hopkins is at 116 percent, according to the district, and Leila Davis is at 105 percent. And neither appear on the district's five-year construction plan.

To meet the class size law, Leila Davis would need eight more classrooms, said Pinellas schools spokesman Sterling Ivey.

"We feasibly cannot add classrooms on that site," he said. "We're going to have to drop enrollment."

Hillsborough schools do not face such problems. The district has several new schools and classroom wings scheduled for construction in the next five years. The administration also is examining attendance boundaries for possible revisions.

"The ones that are most critical we want to work on first, then we'll start to turn our attention to the other ones, prioritize and deal with them," said pupil administrative services director Steve Ayers.

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:10:11]

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