How Do You Turn an Elementary School Cafeteria and Auditorium Into Four Classrooms?
Last August, Valencia Park Elementary School in Fullerton quickly learned how. The school has an enrollment of 950 students or so, and the staff wanted to reduce the size of its first-grade classrooms before the school year began. The problem was that four additional classrooms were needed until the middle of the year, when more portable classrooms would be arriving.

As it happened, the school’s cafeteria and auditorium occupied the same large room, with a stage at one end and the kitchen at the other. First, the decision was made that the cafeteria could be sacrificed. Lunch tables and benches were moved outside to the playground, which meant students began dining al fresco. When it rained, which wasn’t often, "rainy day lunches" were declared, and students ate in their classrooms. To alleviate playground crowding, students were divided into three groups, each eating at a different time.

To convert the cafeteria/auditorium to a classroom, movable walls were used. Carpet was laid over the linoleum floors, and the walls were repainted or covered with murals of such things as schoolhouses and flowers painted on large pieces of paper. Three of the classrooms were used for first graders, and the fourth was used for an English as a second language classroom. This begs the obvious question: Are these good-quality classrooms?

"We thought it looked very cozy and not sterile—like a cafeteria," says Michele Succar, the school’s psychologist. "We were all very pleased, especially the teachers. It was wonderful to have the 20-to-one." But were first graders a little alarmed to be attending class in a cafeteria?

"Well, these are first graders," says Succar. "Most of them don’t come with preconceived notions about what a classroom should look like, and I doubt it affected them. They were in a school classroom with good teachers and a warm, caring environment. And that’s what’s most important."

Five Lessons from California CSR
The following lessons can be learned from California’s struggles and successes with CSR.

Think ahead. Even if your district has adequate space, survey all buildings to see where and how, in a pinch, classrooms could be added at a later date. Also, view every inch of space as a potential classroom; temporary partitions can do wonders.

CSR attracts teachers. Obviously, teachers love smaller classes. Districts like Long Beach and Mammoth used the promise of CSR to sell themselves to teachers and, as a result, the demand was greater than the supply. Both districts feel they greatly enhanced their staffs by hiring skilled and experienced teachers.

Money often follows results. Schools that achieve CSR by any means possible have something to sell to the public when the inevitable bond ends up on the ballot. Jan Hintzman, of the San Diego school district, says that she wanted to wait a year and study the numbers before implementing CSR. The district didn’t wait, believing that the facilities the district lost to CSR were a worthwhile sacrifice: Give the community smaller classes, and the community will then pass the next school bond issue.

Be media savvy. "If there’s something negative going on, all the press comes out," says Sandra Herrera of the Oxford School District. "If it’s something good, we can’t get them to come out, even if we buy ads in the paper. It’s a continuing frustration."

One strategy widely used in dealing with the press is going to the press before it comes to you, which the Long Beach district did—to great effect—when it held a job fair to recruit new teachers. Keep in mind, too, that reporters at small newspapers often tend to be young and inexperienced. Introduce yourself to them. Invite them to your office to talk about the issues—maybe lunch with them once a month. And, hard as it might be, don’t take offense when they write something that angers you or, perhaps, is dead wrong. Their readers are the people who vote for bonds and politicians.

Be a leader. "Hopefully, class size reduction will help people see the need for additional facilities," says Van Der Laan. "And there is a growing awareness that, if we are going to get into the 21st century, we still need to finish getting into the 20th century. Our thinking is that, if you decide to do it, find a way. Do it sooner rather than later. Be a leader rather than a follower."

School Planning & Management

Management Strategies
July 1997

A Lesson in Classroom Size Reduction
Administrators nationwide can learn from California’s classroom size reduction plan and how districts implemented it.
By Steve Hymon

In May of 1996, California Governor Pete Wilson found himself in a difficult position. California schools were swelling with students, the result of the recent baby boom and the state’s continual growth in population. Simultaneously, test scores revealed that reading skills in many of California’s schools, especially those located in urban areas, lagged behind scores in the rest of the nation. Another publicized study found that California ranked 40th in the nation on spending per pupil.

Fingers were pointed at Wilson, whose approval rating had dropped dramatically since his embarrassing withdrawal from the 1996 presidential election. But Wilson fought back. The state had collected extra tax revenue for 1995, and state law dictated that the money had to go to education.

The Plan
Sensing an opportunity, Wilson created a $771 million initiative called classroom size reduction (CSR). Wilson’s goal was simple: He wanted all kindergarten, first-, second- and third-grade classrooms to have 20 or fewer students. Wilson said that the would give school districts $650 for each student in a reduced classroom in the 1996-97 school year. An additional fund of $200 million would be created to help those schools facing a critical shortage of facilities. This past May, Wilson proposed expanding the amount to $800 per student in the new state budget (which will be voted on this summer), while allowing schools to use some of that $800 for new facilities.

The CSR program received high praise from parents, teachers and the press. And, in many ways, the results have been extraordinary: By February of this year, 851 of the state’s 895 public school districts had qualified for the program, according to the latest figures from the state department of education. Although many schools were unable to reduce class size in all four grades, many schools were able to reduce first and second grades from more than 30 students per class.

But there are two sides to the story. While few people criticize the legitimacy and effectiveness of smaller classrooms, many school district administrators have found that the $650 Wilson was paying for each student was, in fact, nowhere near the real cost of the program.

Three questions hounded California administrators.

  1. 1. Where were all the extra classes created by CSR going to be housed?
  2. 2. Who was going to teach those classes?
  3. 3. If $650 per student didn’t cover the cost, where was the extra money going to come from?

Los Angeles’ Strategy
The mother of all California school districts, Los Angeles Unified, provided some revealing answers to all three questions. LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the nation (with more than 668,000 students) and its many serious problems—deteriorating buildings, crime and a top-heavy administration—are well chronicled in the press, often on a daily basis.

CSR was asking LAUSD to reduce class size at a time when LAUSD was already looking at a record enrollment increase of 18,000 students heading into the 1996-97 school year. Factoring in CSR, it appeared that LAUSD would be short 27,000 seats. This was the problem that faced Gordon Wohlers, LAUSD’s assistant superintendent in charge of classroom size reductions.

Wohlers and his colleagues tackled the problem systematically. First, they realized they were dealing with a facility shortage and convinced the LAUSD board to order 1,000 portable classrooms, all of which should be in place by this fall.

Next, they asked the LAUSD board of education to approve various temporary measures that would ease pressure on schools. One measure allowed schools to use any available space for classrooms, including teachers’ lounges, auditoriums and libraries. Another measure allowed 40 students to use the same classroom as long as two teachers were present to divide the class in half. Other schools, already stuffed to the gills, were permitted to adopt multitrack, year-round programs.

These measures, along with hiring more than 1,000 teachers, allowed LAUSD to place 98 percent of its first and second graders in the CSR program. "The problem we have now is that we can’t go further than this," says Wohlers. "The reason is we have nearly 100 elementary schools that are filled to capacity. Absent of new construction, we cannot expand the CSR program to the third- and fourth-grade level." The other problem, and one that has become endemic throughout the state, is money. LAUSD, even with the $650 per student received from the state, had to spend approximately $97 million from its own general funds, not including the cost of the portables and educational materials. Wohlers estimates that the real cost of implementing CSR was almost $1,000 per student.

The district did receive some good news in early April, when L.A. voters passed a $2.4 billion school bond measure—the same measure that had suffered a narrow defeat at the polls last November. The problem, however, is that the money is specifically earmarked for desperately needed school repairs and to fund construction of much-needed high schools.

Thus, the future of CSR in Los Angeles is already in question shortly after it has begun. Everyone loves the smaller classrooms, but LAUSD faces an enrollment that will continue to grow with the Southern California economy.

"Overall, we are going to have to invest more money into education if we are going to get the results the public is investing in," says Wohlers.

Mammoth Lakes’ Strategy
Mammoth Lakes, population 6,000, couldn’t be more different from Los Angeles. Located in a remote alpine valley in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mammoth Lakes is a popular year-round destination because of its skiing, fishing and camping.

Mammoth Elementary School serves not only the town of Mammoth Lakes, but much of Mono County, one of the more sparsely populated counties in California. Interestingly, its elementary school has 634 students, whereas its middle school and high school have about 300 each—reflective, again, of the mini-baby boom of the late 1980s.

Before CSR, Mammoth Elementary also had as many as 34 students in some of its first- through third-grade classes. This did not represent the quality of life that many of Mammoth’s residents left L.A. to pursue. Any possible way of reducing class size was appealing.

"We went into CSR with our eyes open," says Brian McBride, principal of Mammoth Elementary School. "The benefits of smaller classes are obvious, but the downside is that it cost our general fund about $83,000 because [CSR] was not fully funded."

Mammoth Elementary hired seven teachers, all with experience, which wasn’t difficult because the town is a desirable place to live. But the school is now using every inch of the building for classrooms and is facing the prospect of changing to a year-round schedule to accommodate CSR. The school also placed an order for a portable classroom, which cost $60,000 because the portable must withstand the sizable snowfalls typical of the area.

The architecture of the school provided common areas in the middle of the classroom area. Two of those areas were converted to classrooms, and a conference room was thrown into the mix as a small-group instruction area. McBride is thankful that, for now, he was spared having to use the cafeteria, but he isn’t happy about losing his second grade’s common area, which was previously used for art projects and theater activities.

Nevertheless, all 16 of Mammoth’s first through third grades now have 20 or fewer students. "Most of us who went into this thing knew it wasn’t a moneymaker," says McBride. "But we went into it with the thought that we can afford to do it right now and that we should because we have very high class sizes." But McBride offers a warning: "The state is going to have change the funding or this will be a two-year experiment."

Oxnard’s Strategy
Oxnard is located in a fertile agricultural valley just north of Malibu. The school district has 14,300 students enrolled, many of whom are from low-income families.

"Everyone applauds the concept of CSR," says Sandra Herrera, assistant superintendent of business and fiscal services for the Oxnard School Dis-trict. "But we were already 100 percent multitrack at all of our schools, and all of our classrooms were in use year-round. We have no place to put the children."

Oxnard, like many other school districts, faced political pressure to im-plement CSR. But, as of late April, the district had managed to get only the first grade into the program. An elementary school under construction is scheduled to open this summer and, if the second grade is fully implemented into CSR, the new school will open at complete capacity.

One of the problems with CSR in California is that the $650 per pupil funding is not meant to cover the cost of building new facilities. Districts that need extra money for facilities can apply for money from a separate $200 million fund—but $200 million represents little money for the most populous state in the nation. One of the results of this, according to Herrera, is that school districts with critical needs, such as Oxnard, are unable to compete with districts that do have space. In other words, a problem that CSR was designed to alleviate—overcrowding in schools—tends to help overcrowding only in wealthier districts, while furthering crowding in poorer districts.

Oxnard added 45 portable classrooms, which it will pay for from its general funds in the next 10 years. A school bond failed to pass by 80 votes on March 4 of this year, but passed on June 3, rising above the two-thirds vote required for passage by just 42 votes. "You try to get the word out in relationship to the need," says Herrera, "but it’s hard for people to realize how great the need is."

San Diego’s Strategy
The San Diego Unified School District, with about 136,000 students, was fortunate. Two years before Governor Wilson’s CSR program was implemented, the city school district had begun its own program. Heading into the 1996-97 school year, the average class size in first and second grades was already 25.5 students.

"The CSR program wasn’t as hard on us because, financially, we made sacrifices earlier," says Jan Hintzman, supervisor of facilities program for the San Diego Unified School District. Hintzman and her colleagues solved the most serious problem—lack of facilities—by considering every inch of every school as fair game for use as classrooms. What Hintzman and her colleagues soon found was that most schools were giving up anything to participate in CSR, including lounges, auditoriums and libraries. Hintzman estimates that replacing such facilities will cost the district $14 million.

"As a facility planner, I could never have gone out and done some of these things," says Hintzman. "I think it’s a sign that everyone realized we had to do something to improve student performance."

Long Beach’s Strategy
The Long Beach Unified School District, which has 84,000 students, made similar sacrifices. As soon as the initiative was signed into law, principals and elementary school teachers were called back from summer vacation. The district immediately organized a teacher recruitment fair and put the word out through the local media.

On the day of the fair, candidates for teaching jobs were lined up out the door, and officials from LBUSD were there, serving them soft drinks. Several television and radio stations and newspapers covered the fair, resulting in even more candidates—some who heard about the fair on the radio while commuting to work and decided to stop to apply. The result: Long Beach got the pick of the teaching litter.

"We have the challenge of being a large, urban school district growing by 3,000 students each year," says Richard Van Der Laan, the district’s spokesperson. "We could have waited to implement CSR, but we didn’t want to. We felt that, with a little ingenuity, we could get a high percentage of primary school kids into the program."

By the end of the first semester of the 1996-97 school year, 100 percent of Long Beach’s first graders, 69 percent of the second graders and about 40 percent of the kindergartners were in classes of 20 and under. In total, about 16,000 students are involved in CSR.

How did Long Beach find the space? Like other districts, Long Beach brought in 40 portables and then went about "recapturing" any areas that could be used for classrooms. The district also decided to forgo small classes for subjects such as music and physical education—which freed rooms for other classes. The district even took back an old school it had been leasing to Los Angeles County and, today, the school is operating at 100 percent capacity.

"We had a number of principals and superintendents who were all supportive of making this thing happen," says Van Der Laan. "They were all convinced that our children shouldn’t be left behind because of the inconvenience this might cause—we were deeply convinced that urban youngsters should get the same opportunities as children in other areas."

It didn’t hurt that Long Beach, according to Van Der Laan, had an adequate reserve of money set aside. In fact, many of the portable classrooms had already been ordered before CSR was signed into law. Still, Van Der Laan insists, attitude was what made Long Beach successful: "Other places decided to wait and to think the program through but, in reality, the ones who stuck around the starting gate probably, in hindsight, should have jumped into it wholeheartedly."

From a National Perspective
Education has finally become an issue politicians from both parties are embracing. It’s no secret that President Clinton is hoping to make improving education the defining issue of his second term. In California, Governor Wilson would like to expand CSR to the fourth grade. He is also talking about putting a $2 billion statewide bond for education on the ballot next year. If CSR programs prove to have a dramatic impact on reading and math skills in California, it is likely that CSR programs will expand to other states as well. The argument for CSR programs is appealing to politicians, and it’s a notion hard to dispute: Our children will need better skills to compete in a global marketplace.

Steve Hymon is a California-based freelance writer.

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