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Class Size May Be Lesser of O.C. Schools' Problems

Education: Amid the scramble for state money are the daunting tasks of finding teachers and high-tech resources.

August 25, 1996|MARTIN MILLER and TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Class size in elementary schools will dramatically shrink. Reading, the cornerstone of learning, will be emphasized as never before. And more schools than ever in Orange County's 27 school districts will plug into the computer revolution.

The county's 430,000 students, kindergartners to high school seniors, head back to school next week, and county educators are pleased with their better fortunes. But they also are quietly wondering if this year is an illustration of the adage: Be careful what you wish for because it might come true.

"Our prayers have been answered, all right," said county schools Supt. John F. Dean, referring to Gov. Pete Wilson's plan to reduce class sizes in the primary grades. "But now we have to make sure we can respond."

The generosity and suddenness of Wilson's announcement in May caught Orange County schools ill-prepared to cut class sizes--now ranging from 30 to 34--to 20 by Feb. 16. Schools that meet the target receive a share of a special $770-million state fund that has pledged $650 per pupil in every class with 20 or fewer.

The county's 24 elementary school districts are finding the task a logistics nightmare. To comply, the schools would need 370 additional classrooms to accommodate an estimated 140,000 primary grade students.

Without the funds and the time to construct classrooms, districts have placed emergency orders for portable ones whose delivery schedules are uncertain in many parts of the county.

Before those portable buildings arrive, children in some districts may be sitting temporarily in makeshift classrooms, in corners of libraries and cafeterias or on amphitheater stages. Other districts may hold classes in teachers' lounges.

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Above all, school districts are desperately seeking more teachers. Orange County alone needs about 1,000, though all of the state's colleges and universities together turn out only 5,000 new teachers a year.

In districts such as Garden Grove and Santa Ana, where the demand for bilingual and special-education teachers is extremely high, teachers are being hired with temporary credentials.

In spite of the obstacles, 23 of 24 county elementary districts have approved plans to reduce class size to 20 in one or more grade levels, kindergarten through third. Only Anaheim City School District, with its bulging enrollment and tight space, is still struggling to ratify a class reduction plan.

"We're just moving as fast as we can to implement as much as we can," said Supt. James O. Fleming of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, which will reduce class sizes in all first grades. "The nuts and bolts we don't have yet, but that will come with time."

While applauding Wilson's plan, education experts say making class size a priority over a plethora of other urgent projects raises important questions.

"The reduction of class size is a vital step forward," said Sidney Gardner, director of the Center for Collaboration for Children at Cal State Fullerton. "But what good are they if textbooks are lousy, if there aren't enough computers to go around, and if the buildings are falling down?"

On a broader scale, county schools at all grade levels are struggling to keep up with the information age, particularly hooking up to the Internet. While schools are devoting more budget dollars than ever to computer technology, authorities say Orange County is still well short of where it should be.

"The computer disparity is extraordinary," Gardner said. "But when a community like Irvine with hardware and software firms all over the place only has a minority of its schools wired, that's really bad news. And you know the rest of the county is even further behind."

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Educators regard the computer as a vital learning tool that brings the world's knowledge to the classroom with the click of a mouse.

"What a great opportunity for kids," said Doug Kramer, principal of Las Palmas Elementary School in San Clemente, which will go online this fall. "It's exciting. This will open so many doors for students to do research, look around and investigate their ideas."

But wiring campuses is expensive. Some school districts, such as Saddleback Valley Unified and Santa Ana Unified, are using grants and developers' fees to open computer labs, but most districts are still in the starting blocks.

"It's a priority but class size has taken a front seat," said Supt. Carole Riley of the Buena Park Elementary School District.

But those districts already online realize that the new technology has brought with it unexpected responsibilities. Just as easily as they can access encyclopedias, students also can tap into sexually explicit areas on the Internet.

Schools are taking action. Earlier this month, the Santa Ana Unified School District installed a device that prevents students from entering designated sites on the Internet's World Wide Web. Also, the district requires students to have a signed permission slip from their parents before they can use the system.

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