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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fallout from the Florida Legislature gutting the class size amendment

From the Miami Herald

by Laura Isenisee

At Miami Beach High, it takes 20 minutes for Nadia Zananiri to take attendance in a college-prep World History class.

There are 54 freshmen and 40 desks.

“Everything takes longer. These kids have questions, and there’s not always time to answer them,” she said.

A week into the school year, many teachers and students in Miami-Dade are grappling with bigger classes, because of changes in state rules.

Last year, enrollment in nearly every high school course was capped at 25 students, as the final phase of Florida’s Class Size Amendment (added by voters to the state Constitution in 2002) kicked in. But in the last legislative session, state lawmakers reduced the number of courses under the mandate by two-thirds. The move saved cash-strapped districts money and gave them more flexibility.

The caps still apply to core courses like reading, math and science that are required for graduation. But they no longer apply to college-prep offerings, foreign languages and honors courses like precalculus.

District officials say they are working to level out classes. Rosters may be shifted, or new ones added. Students may also opt to take some Advanced Placement courses online. Last year, the district turned to virtual courses to help meet class-size rules.

“We’re six days in. We’re are still in the process enrolling students,” said Daniel Tosado, assistant superintendent for district operations at Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

New students are still arriving — some won’t show up till after Labor Day — and other students may transfer between programs and adjust their schedules.

The school district and administrators will have firm enrollment numbers by October, when the state takes a head count in all schools.

Tosada said the target enrollment would be about 30-32 students.

“We’re going to have outliers, and we’ll address them ... We’ll have a better idea day by day,” he said.

Zananiri solved the space crunch by putting computers on the floor so students can sit at the computer table. More students mean Zananiri will have a bigger teaching load — at least an extra 35 essays a week in the rigorous, writing-intensive course — for the same amount of pay.

She said what worries her more: giving all her students the attention they need.

“It’s their first AP course. It’s very difficult. I can’t always answer all their questions with 54 students and one of me,” she said.

The AP program and other advanced courses, such as International Baccalaureate, are designed to give students the same rigor as a college class. College-prep classes also contribute to schools’ state grades.

“This is just the state being cheap. This is state skirting the law on the class-size amendment,” said Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade. “It’s cutting corners, but it’s cutting quality, too.”

So far, Chris Dougnac, a senior at Dr. Michael Krop Senior, is taking bigger classes in stride. In two of his AP classes, English literature and psychology, there are just over 40 students. It reminds him of elementary school days at Ruth K. Broad Bay Harbor Elementary. Back then, he schlepped with his mom to PTA meetings and heard the campaign to limit class sizes.

“It’s intimidating, but at the same time it reminds me you have to make yourself heard,” he said.

Chris plans to apply the lesson he learned in his first AP class in 10th grade. “I realized if I want to get one-on-one teacher help, I would have to prove myself by asking for that one-on-one.”

He said his AP economics/government class, in which there were not enough desks the first day, has gotten smaller.

Parents at Coral Reef Senior High complained that one AP government class had ballooned to more than 30 students. Sections of AP physics and English literature had also grown to about three dozen students each, they said.

At North Miami Middle School, several teachers tried to organize a rally last week about crowded classes, including some core classes like science. Dwight Williams, a science teacher, said students at the struggling school can’t afford to wait for classes to be evened out or more teachers hired.

“These students deserve 180 days of education,” he said.

Several teachers said the bigger classes mean they will have to tweak their teaching style to be less personal and centered more on lectures.

“Even though we only started school a week ago, you’re feeling that some of them will be slipping through the cracks because you don’t have the ability to be as personable as you could have if there were only 25 students,” said Orlando Sarduy, 30. He teaches honors and college-prep math courses at Coral Reef. Nearly all of his classes have grown to 30-plus students.

At Hialeah High, Maite Jerez, 34, said two of her four college-prep courses have grown to more than 30 seniors. “It doesn’t seem like much, but five or six more bodies in a large setting can have an effect, negative or positive.” Jerez said.

On the positive side: “You get more brains, more voices and more perspectives in the room,” she said.

But it also means more focus on managing the classroom. Jerez said she will likely have students do more prep work.

Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

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