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Smaller classes, happier teachers, students

Cory Fisher

Sitting at a table with four students, Al Tahoe Elementary School second-grade teacher Jill Cunningham goes over a series of math equations.

Students quietly respond.

In fact, all 19 students are working quietly at each of the four work stations scattered around the room.

Starting with a class of 27 this fall, Cunningham said it wasn’t as easy to address the varying needs of each student.

But everything changed in early December.

Cunningham’s class is one of thousands in California taking advantage of the class-size reduction plan for primary grades the state unveiled last July. Before December, the Lake Tahoe Unified School District’s average student-teacher ratio was roughly 30 to 1.

But when the state offered $650 per pupil for class-size reduction in kindergarten through the third grades, the district opted to implement the program in each of the five elementary schools for the first, second and third grades.

The summer announcement spurred a rush to hire 28 more teachers and create almost as many classrooms. This fall, many of those new teachers took part in an intensive 10-week training session prior to taking over their own classes in December.

“We’re a bit cramped this year, but this is really a transitional year,” said Al Tahoe Principal Jim Watson. “It was a huge undertaking and commitment for the district to take on all three grades in the first year – things happened quickly.”

So quickly, in fact, that Al Tahoe was forced to disband a computer lab and give up the teacher’s lunch room to provide more classroom space, Watson said.

But Al Tahoe had it easy compared to schools like Tahoe Valley Elementary School, where the library was converted into four classrooms and a custodian’s closet is now home to reading specialists.

“Everyone did the best they could this year for implementation,” said Watson. “But I can’t wait ’til next year.”

Twenty-four new portable classrooms are scheduled to arrive in August, which will be distributed among the five elementary schools. Al Tahoe is expecting six of those. Although it will greatly ease space problems, it won’t completely solve them, said Watson, and the state has yet to commit to paying all of the additional money needed for portables that meet Tahoe’s snow load requirements.

But that hasn’t dampened enthusiasm.

Two of the district’s oldest schools – Al Tahoe and Tahoe Valley – will also be part of a $2.9 million modernization project this summer, made possible through state funds from Proposition 203, or the educational facilities bond measure passed a year ago.

To get an idea of just how bad crowding has become, Al Tahoe was originally designed for 300 students, said Watson, and now has more than 600 – plus a staff of roughly 70. Of the reduced ratio classes at Al Tahoe, 13 out of 16 are in “stand alone” classrooms, while three have “floating” or team teachers.

“Class-size reduction has had a huge impact and it’s generated a lot of challenges,” said Watson. “But it’s absolutely worth it. The teachers are thrilled.”

Al Tahoe first-grade teacher and 10-year veteran Sara Walsh agrees.

“The quality of students’ work is outstanding – I didn’t expect that so soon,” said Walsh, whose class went from 34 students to 18. “There are fewer discipline problems, fewer distractions and I have a more thorough understanding of each child and his or her abilities.”

“Assessment is a lot easier,” echoed second-grade bilingual teacher Jill Cunningham, who now has 19 students. “And I’m able to talk to parents on a more regular basis.”

Initially, many criticized Gov. Pete Wilson’s remedy for overcrowded classrooms, arguing that the sudden demand for teachers statewide would result in the hiring of unqualified instructors.

Watson disagrees.

“It’s sad that there’s this perceived notion that if you have a pulse you can teach,” he said. “That certainly wasn’t the case in this district.”

There were close to 200 applicants, he said, and 40 of those were interviewed by a panel consisting of all five elementary principals and the president of the South Tahoe Teachers’ Association.

“That worked out well – principals were able to discuss which candidates were the most appropriate for certain schools,” said Watson. “I learned a lot about the different needs of each school.”

The few hired without teaching credentials are now required to obtain them while teaching.

Although state funds covered most if not all class-size reduction costs this year, LTUSD Director of Financial Services Diane Head says the district may have to dip into its own General Fund in the future as new teachers move up the pay scale. “Salaries are based on education and longevity,” she said. “The cost of the program will increase.”

Although the state will allocate $16 more per student next year, Head is not sure that’s enough. “It may not cover all costs,” she said. “But budgeting is a guessing game – we’re projecting at this point.”

Could future increases eventually put the squeeze on other educational programs in the district?

“It’s something we’re keeping a close watch on,” Head said.

But one thing is clear – teachers and administrators are convinced that the quality of instruction has improved with class-size reduction.

“More teacher-student contact really fits in with our district literacy goals,” said Watson. “Now our future goals are to look at the best teaching strategies for this ratio. If we’re going to change the framework we should definitely change teaching techniques.

“This was a transitional year and we’ll be better able to gauge our progress one year from now. But I know we did the right thing,” he continued. “And I have great teachers – I wouldn’t give any of them back.”


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