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K-8 Class Sizes Grow Steadily, Strain System : Education: Teachers fear pupils will get get less help since population growth and budget cuts show no signs of waning.


New statistics show that the number of students in Orange County's classrooms is steadily rising, increasing concern among educators that the state's budget woes are eroding the quality of education for children.

In grades kindergarten through eight, average class sizes in individual districts ranged from fewer than 22 to more than 31. Figures for the current academic year compiled by the Orange County Department of Education--broken down by average class size in kindergarten, grades one through three and grades four through eight--increased in all three categories since the 1987-88 school year.

The countywide increase in class size may not seem significant, since it represents the addition of one pupil or less per class on average. But it frightens teachers and administrators because the forces that create the increase--population growth and budget cuts--show no sign of waning. They fear that as the years go by, students will get less and less help as they try to learn the skills needed to survive in a complex world.

Countywide, there was an average of 28.8 students per kindergarten class, 28.4 for grades one through three and 28.2 for grades four through eight in the 1991-92 academic year. The biggest increase was in grades four through eighth, where the average class size was 27.2 four years ago. Average class size increases in kindergarten and in first through third grades were more modest--about half a student. The county does not keep similar statistics for its high schools.

The K-8 numbers mirror the trouble in schools throughout California, as districts sweat under a staggering budget deficit, trying to accommodate a growing student population with plummeting revenues. Unable to make new hires or forced to lay off teachers to save money, districts herd more pupils into each classroom.

Budget cuts eliminated the gathering of statewide class-size figures this year. The most recent numbers, for the 1990-91 school year, show an average class size of 28 pupils in the kindergarten through eighth grade in the state.

Shirley P. Guy, political consultant to the California Teachers Assn., said state lawmakers who vote to cut education funding leave local districts little choice but to cut services to students.

"This shows us that the commitment isn't there to provide quality education for today's students, who are tomorrow's leaders," Guy said.

As districts around the county begin finalizing their 1992-93 budgets, which must be approved by each district's board of trustees in June, some are looking at increasing class size as a means of saving money. The Capistrano Unified School District, for example, included an average class size increase of a half-student in its fiscal 1992 budget, a move expected to save the district $1 million.

Sheila Benecke, president of the state PTA's 4th District, which covers Orange County, said parents and teachers "fear the loss of individualized attention that comes with a larger class size."

Guy said two of the strongest factors at work in boosting class size are the budget deficit, which forces fewer teachers to teach more kids, and growth in the youth population as baby boomers have children and immigrants bring their families to California.

In Orange County, teachers in the hardest-hit areas feel the impact of the bigger classes in everything they do. Mary L. Lindoro, who teaches a combined second- and third-grade class at Pio Pico Elementary School in Santa Ana, said each student added to her class makes her job much tougher.

"Every day I feel there are children who didn't get the attention they deserve," said Lindoro, 31, who has been teaching in the Santa Ana Unified School District for eight years.

Lindoro had 33 children in her class until March, when four students left, leaving her with 29. Handling even that many is a struggle, she said, especially since she teaches bilingual education and is "transitioning" her children from Spanish to English.

Indeed, Santa Ana Unified, with its large immigrant population, has the dubious distinction this year of having the biggest classes in grades one through three, with an average class size of 30.5. Huntington Beach City has the largest kindergarten classes with an average of 30.7 students, and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified has the biggest in grades four through eight with 31.2 students.

Laguna Beach Unified boasted the smallest classes in kindergarten and fourth-through-eighth grades, with an average of 24 and 21.7 students, respectively, with the latter figure representing a drop of more than five students per class since 1987-88. Cypress has the smallest classes in grades one through three, averaging 24.3 students.

Paul M. Possemato, superintendent of Laguna Beach Unified, said he feels very fortunate. Because his district raises almost all of its school revenue from local property taxes, it has to depend far less on dwindling state funds to keep its schools afloat.

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