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Parents Rescue Smaller Classes

Donations may keep size limits for third-graders at 30 of 36 Capistrano Unified elementary schools. But campaigns raise fairness issues.

June 19, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Last-minute parent donations are likely to prevent some teacher layoffs and larger third-grade classes at all but six of Capistrano Unified's 36 elementary schools, officials for the South County district said Wednesday.

But the effort, described as unprecedented in the state, has some questioning whether third-graders in the schools where parents didn't raise enough money will get a substandard education. They said such grass-roots efforts, while commendable for those campuses that raised enough money, are creating haves and have-nots in the same district.

Linda Bucilla, a parent at Hidden Hills Elementary in Laguna Niguel, told school trustees Monday it is wrong for schools in the same city to offer different classroom programs. Pupils should have the same opportunities to be successful no matter where they live, she said.

"What this says to parents at those schools is 'Shame on you for not moving your child to a school that was able to raise the money,' " she said.

Because of cuts in funding due to the state budget deficit, nearly a third of California school districts have ended at least one grade level of class-size reduction, the popular program that keeps children in classes of no more than 20 students. In recent years, the state has helped fund smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade so teachers have more time with each student.

Capistrano Unified voted May 12 to terminate the program for its third-graders to slash $22 million from next year's $300-million budget. But after consulting with legal counsel, the superintendent and board members agreed to let parents try to raise money school by school to pay for the program, effectively sparing some of the 137 teachers on a layoff list.

The grass-roots movements, started two weeks ago by a mother at Tijeras Creek Elementary in Rancho Santa Margarita, end today with 15 of the district's 36 elementary schools reaching their goals: $40,000 for existing campuses and $20,000 for new schools opening in August.

Eight schools have another month to raise $20,000 for a different kind of class-size reduction that would provide third-graders a half day of smaller classes.

Schools with the largest enrollments of low-income students did not have to raise extra funds. Seven of the district's eight elementary schools classified as Title I -- eligible for federal funding because they serve predominantly low-income students -- chose to use their supplemental money to maintain smaller classes through third grade. Las Palmas Elementary opted to continue using its federal funding for after-school and intervention programs along with all-day kindergarten, not smaller third-grade classes.

That leaves six campuses in the district, which has schools in 10 communities from Rancho Santa Margarita to San Clemente, with no likelihood of having any form of the program for next year's third-graders.

In total, more than $700,000 was raised districtwide in the last two weeks, which could restore the jobs of 50 of 137 teachers on the district's layoff list, a district spokesman said.

Lynn Piccoli, manager of the California Department of Education's K-3 class-size reduction program, said she hasn't heard of any other district attempting a campus-by-campus effort.

Wendy Schmitt, mother of three children at Ambuehl Elementary in San Juan Capistrano, agrees with others that the effort should have been districtwide, but said the opportunity to save the program was too good to pass up. Her school met the $40,000 goal.

"If we can, we should," she said. "We'd be remiss as parents if we didn't."

At Ambuehl and other schools, parents have been urging each other to donate at campus open-house events, meetings and auctions. At Hidden Hills, three mothers dodged cars to pass out donation envelopes to parents picking up their children. By Wednesday, they had $20,000 and a month's extension to raise the rest.

Because schools in wealthy areas could raise the money and those with large numbers of poor families were able to use federal funds, those in the middle class were left in the lurch, said Mary Ellen Butler, of Talega, whose two children will attend Vista Del Mar Elementary when it opens near San Clemente this fall. That school has received an extension.

District Supt. James A. Fleming said he worries about the inequities presented by campus-level fund-raising, but he felt compelled to allow it because parents have the right to raise money for any program as long as children benefit regardless of their families' contribution.

The increase in parents' knowledge and empowerment about budget issues has been a benefit, families and district officials agreed.

"I'm seeing people invest more energy to be proactive in making something happen," Fleming said.

"They're not just whining and complaining."

Rarely, school finance experts said, do districts allow campus-level fund-raising for a program that has such strong effects on everyday learning. Most campus parent groups fund things such as field trips and library books.

Irvine Public Schools Foundation head Tim Shaw said his district would never permit such an initiative. His group raised $420,000 in the last three weeks to save the district's third-grade class-size reduction, all but $3,000 from parent donations.

Irvine foundation policy is that all programs funded by private donations must be available to every district child, Shaw said.

"You could create real conflict between schools by saying it's every man for himself," he said.

"I'm not saying Capistrano is doing a bad thing, just that we wouldn't do that."

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