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Districts Race to Build More Classrooms

Education: Planners say schools in O.C. and elsewhere face difficult decisions in push to teach fewer children at a time.

August 05, 1996|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

ONTARIO — While one group of California school officials is engaged in an unprecedented rush to recruit the thousands of new teachers it will take to reduce primary grade classes to 20 students, another group is working just as feverishly to make sure that those new teachers have a classroom where they can hang their chalk.

That is why nearly 300 building officials representing roughly 75 school districts, including some from Orange County, crowded elbow to elbow into a hotel ballroom here this past week to talk about the arcana of floor space, earthquake safety and access for the disabled; the cost of temporary walls and how to pay for increasingly scarce portable classrooms.

For Orange County school officials, the struggle to find the necessary space has taken on an intense nature.

Officials of the 28,500-student Saddleback Unified School District based in Mission Viejo have been working nonstop to instantly create the equivalent of five new schools to accommodate smaller classes in kindergarten through second grades, said Marylou Smith, a facilities planner.

The district has ordered portable classrooms, is keeping some temporary buildings that it had previously planned to replace, designing dividing walls and converting rooms that had been occupied by music and science programs into regular classrooms.

"Those uses are now gone," Smith said. "We're assessing it as we go and doing it on the fly."

William M. Flory, director of facilities and planning for the 26,000-student Orange Unified School District, said such trade-offs are delicate.

"It depends on what emotional issue you're willing to take on," he said. "Parents can have computer labs and libraries or class-size reduction. That's the choice many districts are going to have to make."

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The state has set aside $200 million to help schools provide the additional classrooms they will need to cut class size from 30 to 20 students. In addition, districts that make the reduction by February will share $771 million more, or $650 per student, to hire teachers and provide other services.

But that money will not go far, school officials say.

"The $200 million the governor put out for class-size reduction will probably only get us through first grade," said Mike Vail, facilities director for the Santa Ana Unified School District.

So for now, school facilities officials are focusing on more immediate issues--such as how to make two classrooms out of one that has only a single door and a single sink.

"Our real concern at this time is to implement it well," said Dave Doomey, assistant superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District. "We want to make sure that what takes place in the classroom really benefits students."

At a handful of underused schools, that will mean shifting students to vacant classrooms for their benefit. Others will have to convert labs, music rooms and libraries. At many, playground space will be gobbled up by portable bungalows. And all are feeling pressure from parents to move quickly.

"The bottom line in all of this is that parents know how to count to 20, so keep that in mind in making your decisions," said Sue Pendleton, a state Department of Education consultant.

"Twenty-five percent of my calls are from parents and they are really eager for this program to go," Pendleton told the meeting, sponsored by a lobbying group called the Coalition for Adequate School Housing. "Mostly they say 'My district isn't moving fast enough.' "

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The state education department sent out applications for the class-size reduction program last week and Pendleton came to the gathering to tell district officials how to fill them out. Districts must apply by Oct. 1 for a chunk of the classroom money and by Nov. 1 for the teacher money. The programs must be in place by Feb. 16 for districts to receive funding.

"This might be the biggest reform we've ever seen and the ultimate purpose of these efforts is significant student achievement gains," Pendleton said.

Be forewarned though, she said, don't even think about missing the application deadlines. "If you're late, it's really too bad."

Many school districts have heeded the call. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, already has ordered 500 portable classrooms and is recruiting teachers from around the country.

A district survey released last week found that 223 of its elementary schools have enough space to create new first- and second-grade classes through a variety of arrangements, including transforming teacher lounges, counseling offices and other rooms into instructional space.

An additional 143 campuses will be able to reduce class size by installing portable classrooms. And officials are still trying to figure out how to cut class size in 60 more.

The demand for additional portable classrooms has all but exhausted the supply, and some school officials worried that the companies that produce the modular units are raising their prices.

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