BACKPAGE EDITORIAL

The Real Cost of Class Size Compliance

Duval County honor students are being set up for failure

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With mixed feelings, parents of students in 
 Duval County Public Schools read the Oct. 21 Florida Times-Union headline "Duval Getting Class Size More Under Control." We hope Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and his leadership team will reduce large fines for our school district, but neither the article nor Vitti explained the high price (or fine) DCPS teachers and students have paid to "achieve" class size compliance.

This article is a respectful explanation of the class size compliance, which wasn't fully shared by Vitti or local media outlets. We will explain how Vitti and DCPS executed class size compliance, and potential long-term effects it will have on our students, teachers, schools and communities.

The key issue with class size amendment is that class size has been interpreted to apply only to "core classes," which include math, science and English classes. Accelerated classes in those subjects aren't included in current FLDOE interpretation of the amendment. This means there's no limit to the number of students in electives and accelerated classes. From what we understand, Stanton's and Paxon's magnet high school IB programs have separate funding and no issues with class size for this school year.

Given the current interpretation, class size compliance was a two-step approach. The first step was to place a record number of students in physical education (PE) classes and, in many cases, assign students to multiple PE classes, since physical education is not bound by the amendment. Second, because accelerated classes like Cambridge AICE, AP and IB courses aren't bound by the amendment, many students were placed in these classes. PE classes have upwards of 60 students, and many Cambridge AICE, AP and IB classes have upwards of 40 students.

Besides the obvious absurdity of the idea that one teacher, in 90 minutes, can teach roughly 60 students how to, for example, play tennis, the overcrowding leads to other major concerns:

• Taking three PE in classes in one year jeopardizes students' post-high-school careers, including college and vocational training.

• Taking three electives in one year is a 
roadblock to graduation requirements.

• A schedule with several PE classes and no weighted grades can artificially lower the GPA.

Everyone has talent, whether it's academic, physical or creative. For some students, electives are the only classes where they excel and the reason they stay in school. Electives provide an intellectual, creative outlet traditional academic classes cannot. As such, it's critical that electives remain a manageable size and do not become merely a buffer to keep "core" classes small.

At one time in our country, a high school diploma opened a lot of doors — but in our current economy, college degrees are the new high school diploma. The 2013-'14 school year schedules will make getting into college all the more difficult, as students must take rigorous academic courses and have a high GPA (above 4.0) to be considered for admission and scholarships. Instead of rewarding their hardworking Cambridge AICE, AP and IB students, this year, DCPS has put many in classes with 40 or more students. For our DCPS college-bound students, AICE and AP courses are their core courses and should be treated as such by our city and state education leaders.

Any parent who has heard a college admission officer's spiel within the last 10 years can tell you the rule every college tells prospective students: Take the most rigorous courses offered and perform well in those classes. We submit that this year, to achieve class size compliance, DCPS honor students are being set up for failure.

According to its website, of the students admitted to the University of Florida in 2013, 84.3 percent had a 4.0 GPA or above, 77.2 percent had taken 31 or more academic courses and 88.8 percent of SAT scores were 2,100 to 2,400.

At Florida State University, students admitted in 2013 earned 3.9-4.7 GPAs and SAT scores were 1,730-1,960. Its website also states a variety of other factors are also considered: the rigor and quality of courses and curriculum, grade trends, class rank, strength of senior schedule in academic subjects, math level in senior year and the number of years in a sequential foreign language.

In order to earn a GPA above 4.0, students must be in classes with weighted grades — accelerated classes, not "core" classes. GPA admission requirements to two of Florida's oldest universities substantiate community concerns with class size compliance; accelerated college preparatory classes are the core classes for college acceptance. Four years of English with substantial writing includes AP Language and AP Literature. To earn top marks on college board exams, students must take AP/AICE/IB courses to develop necessary (tested) vocabulary, writing and thinking skills.

Accelerated classes with close to 40 students do not "provide educational excellence in every school, in every classroom, for every student, every day," as the DCPS mission states, or allow teachers to "meet the demands of the Common Core Standards and students' individual needs," as part of DCPS' strategies on its website.

We question the rationale for the 2013-'14 DCPS increase in length of school day to simply add one more elective (for many students, a second PE course). It seems the cost of hiring teachers for these electives could have been used to hire teachers to help with the overcrowding of "non-core" challenging, academic classes.

Vitti's chief of staff, Wendy LeHockey, was present at a recent meeting of concerned parents, where she acknowledged the difficulties for students this year and re-emphasized the need to meet the class-size requirements. LeHockey further stated that, however unfortunate, there had to be a year of sacrifice. We believe this year of sacrifice will result in lower AICE/AP/IB scores, lower grades and fewer families choosing the local public school option for their children's education.

Parents and community members still don't know the DCPS leadership team's long-term plan for our children — and teachers. We applaud the goals for the new lobbyist hired to work the few weeks the Legislature is in session, to include lobbying to change class size amendment calculations to align with charter school calculations. The lobbyist, John Sullivan, was hired to work while the Legislature was in session; this means he has a meager 60 days to meet his goals. What will happen to class size next year if our schools' lobbyist doesn't change the regulations? Dr. Vitti, parents and community members are here to help you achieve your goals.

One does not need to be an educational researcher to understand the critical role of the teacher in student and school success. Talented, experienced teachers are the soul of a school and play an integral part in a school's success. One does not need to be an urban planner or sociologist to understand the interdependent relationship between a thriving community and a successful local school. Meeting core class size amendment has put a terrific, nonsustainable workload on teachers this school year. For high school teachers in DCPS, their planning period has been replaced with a class. Besides granting a mere one-hour-a-day increase in wages, DPCS has not done anything to alleviate the burden on our teachers. Evaluations will continue, and teacher performance will still be linked to student performance. This scenario seems like a lose-lose for student test scores and teacher performance.

Folio Weekly's July 3 cover story, "Short-time Teachers," covered the issue and cost of teacher attrition, stating, "Duval County loses one out of two new teachers in the first five years."

"It's not just pay," Vitti said in the story, which continues, "He noted that the classroom is a microcosm of all of society's problems — child abuse, neglect, homes with overwrought parents and homes with no books. Faced every day with this ‘overwhelming burden,' he contends, teachers are at high risk for losing morale."

In the best of times, teachers face an "overwhelming burden." This year, they also face:

• An increase in the number of students in each class.

• A reduced amount of prep time.

• A rise in compensation by only one hour's pay every other day.

• In many classes, no books are provided until October.

We can only hope our devoted, experienced and talented teachers will stay in our schools. We can only hope successful community schools will continue to thrive. The students, teachers and the Jacksonville communities deserve better.

Let's be clear who's been sacrificed this year — our teachers and our students. Our students, teachers and communities deserve more.

Thompson and her family are Jacksonville natives.  Her three daughters have been students in Duval County Public Schools since 1998, with two daughters currently attending Fletcher High School and one enrolled as a junior at Florida State University. LaGoy and her family live in the Beaches. Her children have attended public schools across the country, most recently in Florida where they transferred in August 2011.

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