By Diana Lambert | Sacramento Bee
Friday, Aug. 13, 2010 | California students returning to school this month are finding some of the biggest class sizes in more than a decade.
And they are likely to get even bigger.
Large numbers of school districts are bombarding the state with requests to expand classes beyond the legal limits.
The California Board of Education, which reviews class-size waiver requests, gave out 16 exemptions in an 11-month period ending in July. Since then, the board heard 16 more waiver requests at its board meeting Aug. 2 and expects another 16 in September, said Judy Pinegar, manager of the waiver office at the California Department of Education.
The state had no requests for class size increases between 1999 and 2009.
"It's the hot item right now," Pinegar said. "I'm expecting almost every district in the state to request one."
The state allows an average of 31 students in kindergarten, 30 in first through third grade and 29.9 in fourth through eighth grade.
CLASS SIZES GROWING
The waivers allow school districts to avoid stiff financial penalties for going over allowable class sizes. Without a waiver, districts can lose nearly all the state funding for each child over the limit.
A waiver request from Natomas Unified School District is expected to be among those heard by the state board in September. Its trustees voted to seek waivers for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
Unable to balance its budget for three years, Natomas is being monitored by the County Office of Education. Natomas Unified officials say the waivers will help it balance its budget by removing $400,000 set aside to pay class-size penalties each year.
"We're not asking to raise classes by a huge number of students," said Howard Kornblum, assistant superintendent Wednesday.
Natomas trustees want the flexibility to go up to 34 students per class in kindergarten through sixth grade.
The district had already increased class sizes in primary grades by 50 percent in three years, going from 20 students in 2008-09 to 30 students last school year.
Teacher Felipe Ferraz told the Natomas Unified school board that increasing class sizes isn't the answer. "Today I taught 33 children by myself," said the Jefferson Elementary School kindergarten teacher. "I understand we have a budget crisis, but I understand what is going on in the classroom. … Thirty-three or more? I wonder if its realistic to think we can teach that many."
He said students come from preschool, which usually has 12 students for every teacher.
"They have to trust that an adult will be there to help them with their needs – teaching them to wash their hands, tying a shoe, teaching them how to make friends," Ferraz said. "There is a huge number of things we do that promote or deter the progress of a child."
The 22-year teaching veteran said he has had trouble holding students' attention in the noisy classroom. "There are too many bodies and too many children trying to communicate with the teacher," Ferraz said.
He said he hasn't seen this many students in a class since the late '90s, before the state instituted class-size reductions.
School board President Teri Burns said requesting the waiver doesn't mean class sizes will go up. She said the district won't increase class sizes if it finds more money.
Relief could come from the $26 billion federal jobs bill passed Tuesday. It will send $1.2 billion directly to California schools, said H.D. Palmer of California's Finance Department. The money will pay the salaries of 16,500 teachers, according to Democrats.
Funding shortfalls at school districts started the flow of waivers to the California Department of Education. Lack of funds and teacher layoffs have meant more students squeezed into classrooms.
The state school board has been accommodating.
"The board is recommending up to 33, no higher than that," Pinegar said. "No district has otherwise convinced the board."
The main criteria for an exemption, said Pinegar, is if paying the penalty would hurt student learning.
The requests have not been without controversy. The California Teachers Association protested the waivers at the August meeting, Pinegar said.
Wednesday night, Natomas Teachers Association President Cynthia Connell spoke out against the waivers. "NTA is concerned about increasing class sizes again," she said.
But research on whether class sizes affect student learning isn't clear. A five-year study paid for by the state and conducted by a consortium of research groups could not determine whether class-size reduction was responsible for increases in achievement test scores during that time.
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