Statistics released Thursday by the Orange County Department of Education show that county classrooms are more crowded this year than ever before, but they also indicate that the pace of growth--and classroom crowding--is slowing for the first time in several years.
The new figures show that kindergarten classes are bigger than those in higher grades. Countywide, kindergartens average 29 students, compared to 28.9 students in first through third grades and 28.4 in fourth through eighth grades. The county keeps no comparable figures for its high schools.
The state has not finished compiling its class-size figures for this year, and budget cuts prevented collection of that data in 1991. In the 1990-91 year, however, California classes in kindergarten through eighth grade averaged 28 students.
This year's Orange County numbers represent only a slim increase over last year's, when class size in kindergartens rose by 2.2 students on average. In the first through third grades, it grew by only 0.1, and in the fourth through eighth grades it rose by 0.6.
Yet any additional increase concerns teachers because most feel their classes are already too big to allow them to devote adequate attention to each student. In times when budget dollars are scarce, most schools cannot freely hire more teachers or build more schools, which would keep classes smaller.
Heidi Chipman, who teaches a class of 36 gifted fifth-graders at Golden Avenue Elementary in Placentia, said she knows her pupils don't get as much of her time as they deserve.
"If I spend just two minutes with each child during math, that's nearly an hour and a quarter right there, and that's only one subject," she said. "The personal contact is very hard to keep up on that scale, on the level you want, with each child."
Not only do students suffer from lack of attention, Chipman said, they feel physically crowded. Tripping over backpacks or stacks of books is an everyday occurrence in a room stuffed with 36 desks, she said, and when students need room to spread out for a project, some must go outside on the lawn.
The teachers, too, feel the strain of crowding. Chipman said she spends two hours more each day on her students' papers than she did last year, when she taught a class of 27 fifth-graders. And she feels more drained when she goes home at night than she did last year.
"I have 36 very eager, very demanding students," she said. "The amount of work that follows from that is really amazing."
John F. Dean, superintendent of schools for Orange County, said that class size would have risen more this year had it not been for an unexpected slowdown in the growth of the student population. Last year, Dean had predicted an Orange County student body 4% larger in 1992 than in 1991, but it turned out to be only 2% larger.
Dean attributed that phenomenon not to a drop in population growth or immigration but to an increase in the number of families leaving Orange County for recession-related reasons such as lost jobs.
Some districts experienced enrollment drops, but others, such as Santa Ana, continued to boom. Santa Ana has the biggest average class size in the county this year in kindergarten (31.9) and first through third grades (31.4). John W. Bennett, assistant superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District's elementary division, said his district "can't build schools fast enough," which leads to more crowded classrooms.
Even installing one trailer classroom, Bennett said, costs $25,000 to $30,000, and in budget-conscious times, that money isn't easily available.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District suffered one of the biggest jumps in class size this year: two or three students on average since last year. Officials are startled and have made it "priority No. 1" to begin bringing class size down, said Dale Woolley, director of student support and research services.
"We're very unhappy about our class size," Woolley said.
In a district of Newport-Mesa's size, with about 16,400 students, it costs about $1 million to reduce class size by one student districtwide, Woolley said. The school board will comb the budget to see how it can come up with money to create smaller classes, he said.
"We've been in a very tough spot," Woolley said. "We've had to cut $6.5 million from our budget in the last two years. We are looking at what else we can cut to get our class size down again. I don't know what we'll do, but we'll think of something."
Packing Them In
Orange County public school classrooms average almost 30 pupils from kindergarten through the eighth grade. The largest single average occurs in Santa Ana district kindergarten classes.
District Kindergarten Grades 1-3 Grades 4-8 Anaheim City 28.5 28.0 27.8 Buena Park 28.8 28.3 27.6 Centralia 27.6 29.8 29.7 Cypress 27.4 25.5 26.5 Fountain Valley 30.5 29.9 29.8 Fullerton 27.9 29.3 27.5 Huntington Beach 29.5 28.3 29.7 La Habra 29.6 29.2 27.0 Magnolia 28.5 27.3 29.6 Ocean View 29.3 29.5 28.5 Savanna 30.1 28.8 29.4 Westminster 27.5 27.8 25.2 Brea-Olinda 29.4 29.6 30.1 Capistrano 28.6 29.7 28.3 Garden Grove 29.8 29.5 29.5 Irvine 29.0 29.2 28.3 Laguna Beach 25.7 26.1 24.1 Los Alamitos 28.8 29.7 28.7 Newport-Mesa 31.1 30.7 28.1 Orange 29.4 29.4 29.9 Placentia-Yorba Linda 30.0 29.8 31.1 Saddleback Valley 28.1 28.3 28.7 Santa Ana 31.9 31.4 27.8 Tustin 29.2 28.5 29.1 County Average 29.0 28.9 28.4
Source: Orange County Department of Education