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Educators view Clinton's plan with skepticism

January 31, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Educators view Clinton's plan with skepticism

Washington County would shave its average class size by seven students if President Clinton has his way.

In his State of the Union Address Tuesday, Clinton proposed that class sizes in grades one through three be reduced to 18.

Tri-State area educators agree that smaller classes would allow teachers to spend more time with students during those critical early learning years.

But many are also skeptical about whether Clinton's plan will become a reality.

"Don't hold your breath," said Tuscarora (Pa.) School District Superintendent Ted Rabold.

Rabold said the estimated $876,000 cost to add eight new teachers and six classrooms would be "out of the question" without federal or state help.

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"As an educator I'd love to see it, but as a superintendent I also have another priority which is to protect the taxpayer," he said.

Clinton proposed $7.3 billion to hire 100,000 teachers and urged tax credits to pay interest on nearly $22 billion in bonds to finance school construction.

Even with that bold statement, educators are not getting their hopes up.

"I guess we're taking a wait-and-see attitude," said Theresa Flak, assistant superintendent of instruction at the Washington County Board of Education.

An elementary school class with 18 students is now considered small in Washington County, where the average is 25, she said.

Other Tri-State area school districts have average elementary class sizes in the low 20s.

Elementary schools in rural areas often have bigger fluctuations in class size.

At Great Cacapon Elementary School in Morgan County, W.Va., the average class size is 13, said Janet Goodhand, director of elementary education.

Last year, Fannett-Metal Elementary had an unusually large first-grade class of 55.

Due to lack of space, the school decided to keep two large classes, but it didn't work out very well, said Principal JoAnn Papoutsis.

"With that many bodies, it was just very difficult," she said.

This year the school had the space to form three second-grade classes and things are going much better, she said.

Growing school districts in Frederick County, Md., and Berkeley County, W.Va., have a hard time maintaining class sizes in the low 20s because of lack of classroom space, administrators said.

Berkeley County has had to get special state permission for some classes that are larger than state limits, said Frank Aliveto, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

West Virginia sets the maximum class size at 20 for kindergarten, 22 for first through third grades and 25 for fourth through sixth grades, he said.

Bringing it lower would be a challenge, he said.

"I think it's an admirable goal. I don't know if it's realistic or not. It always comes down to money," Aliveto said.

Frederick County is already using 123 portable classrooms, most at the elementary level, said Ray Barnes, director of facilities and planning.

This September, the district will open Whittier Elementary in Frederick, its 31st elementary school, and an expansion at Walkersville Elementary.

Recently, when Congress has suggested money for new schools, it has targeted school districts in poor areas rather than growing areas like Frederick, Barnes said.

"We think it's a great concept, but we'd like to know more details," he said.

Lower class size alone won't improve instruction, said Jim Taylor, assistant superintendent for elementary services at Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District.

Teachers would also have to change their lesson plans to provide more individual instruction to make a difference in learning, he said.

There's no magic number when it comes to the perfect class size.

Some teachers would rather have a class of 28 good students than a class of 18 with several disruptive students.

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