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Help shifted to overcrowded Tyrone

Seven teachers from underpopulated schools are being reshuffled to the elementary school, but the process is disruptive to students and teachers.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It is a math moment, and Jenny Barr is trying mightily to circulate through her first-grade class at Tyrone Elementary School to check her students' progress in their workbooks.

The tow-headed boy at the back of the class has an empty desktop and has missed the lesson on the number 5. But Barr cannot see that. Desks are crammed together to accommodate 35 students in a classroom designed to hold no more than 25.

His hand has been like a metronome in the air for several minutes before she can get to him.

"I need to say I ripped the page out. Now I can't find it," he tells his teacher.

She sighs.

The annual 10-day count revealed to county school officials what teachers and administrators at Tyrone already knew. Eighty-five more students than expected arrived during the first week and a half, with more registering every day to total more than 600 students, and the school has had neither the staff nor the curriculum materials for them.

"The ideal way to teach them is do whole group work, then break into small groups," said Demeter McIntosh, a first-grade teacher with 34 students.

"The ones who need individualized help get it. But I can't do that right now. I'm trying, but I'm leaving students behind. We've already maxed out the class budget. We're begging parents for supplies."

The county is in the process of shifting teachers -- referred to as "units" -- from underpopulated schools to those such as Tyrone. Overall, the countywide estimates were off by only 59 students out of more than 100,000. And in most schools the disparities are small.

"Tyrone is probably the most dramatic," said Elaine Cutler, director of elementary education with the county. "They will gain seven units."

The good news, she said, is that needed teachers will arrive at Tyrone and other overcrowded schools on Monday.

The bad news, say teachers and parents, is that three weeks of school time has been lost in the process.

"Everything's on hold," said Willie Roth, a fourth-grade teacher with 37 students, "down from 39 last week. The students who suffer the most are at either extreme, the very bright ones and those needing a lot of help."

"We should start seeing work coming home," said Suzanne Hillier, whose son, Tim, is a first-grader at Tyrone. "About all they can do is control the kids. They're not getting any work done. They're behind from where first-graders were last year."

"Three weeks into school," said Cindi Sanders, a mother of kindergarten and first-grade students, "and the teachers are already so stressed. That should be at the end of the year."

Jenny Barr is also concerned that first-graders who suddenly find themselves with a new teacher will have still more time-consuming adjustments.

"It's hard for them, and it's hard for us. We don't want to lose any of our students," she said.

"They get used to one thing," Roth said, "and then they have to get used to a new system, a new person."

Cutler, the district's elementary education director, said she and other administrators worked through the past weekend to redistribute staff. She acknowledges the frustration parents and teachers feel.

"It's hard," she said. "But I don't think those kids in huge classes have been able to bond with their teachers very well yet."

Cutler said the 10-day count will go away starting in 2003, when "controlled choice" kicks in.

"This is the last year of the two-year rotation," she said. "With choice, there will be no 10-day adjustment."

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