by Erin Grycel
photography by Michael P. Bailey

From a child's perspective, the effects of class-size reduction are insignificant. But to Lisa Young, a second-third grade combination teacher at Oak Mesa Elementary School, the 20:1 student-teacher ratio has mandated that she balance the workload of two curriculums. / photo by Michael P. Bailey

From a child’s perspective, the effects of class-size reduction are insignificant. But to Lisa Young, a second-third grade combination teacher at Oak Mesa Elementary School, the 20:1 student-teacher ratio has mandated that she balance the workload of two curriculums. / photo by Michael P. Bailey

Silently ticking in the back of the classroom, the clock moves forward. Tick … Tick … Tick … Brrng! At 2:05 p.m, students scramble from their desks and are released from school, but, for teachers and administration at Bonita Unified School District (BUSD), the day seems to have just begun.

With two new state measures, class-size reduction and the end to bilingual education, teachers have been bombarded with permission slips, planning curriculums and budget management.

According to Lorna Horton, Ph.D., assistant superintendent at BUSD, the “district was overjoyed when the state inaugurated the K-3 Class Size Reduction Initiative in California.” Nevertheless, she adds, “We had to make changes. I don’t think anyone was really ready in the state of California.”

As class sizes are reduced to the 20:1 ratio, BUSD has had to hire nearly 30 new teachers to meet the state requirements.

Anita Flemington, Ed.D., former principal of Roynon Elementary School, says, “We literally had to scrape the bottom of the barrel.”

Now an assistant professor of education at the University of La Verne, Flemington looks back and says, “Even though we had to hire some of the teachers on emergency credentials, they have come out to be excellent teachers.”

“It is dangerous to say that just because someone is on an emergency credential they are not good,” adds Flemington.

Despite the individual attention that students are guaranteed with the mandate, panic has risen within the District about teacher competency. Susan Brown, principal at Roynon Elementary School, affirms that the new teachers “came in with a lot of enthusiasm and new ideas.”

“I would put them against any teacher that has been through the program,” she says.

Taking a step back, Tom McGuire, chair of the Education Department at ULV, analyzes the overall impact of the new measure. “It is a step in the right direction, but there are some immediate problems,” McGuire says.

With emergency credentialed teachers, he says, “Someone has to be in front of every new classroom, but that someone might not know much about teaching.”

Another immediate concern is the amount of money that has been expended by the district to cover the influx of teachers and classrooms.

“The state provided $800 per pupil to offset the costs,” says Horton. “Of course, it did not cover everything,” she adds.

Brown simply replies, “Thousands and thousands of dollars came out of the regular BUSD budget.” In fact, 24 portable classrooms were built in the 1997-’98 school year for the additional classes.

Higher test scores have also been one of the main goals to reducing class size.

“This problem is not a quick-fix situation,” says McGuire. “We cannot reduce class size one year and expect to see [immediate progress].”

Regardless of what level students have placed on national test scores, employees throughout BUSD agree that a change has taken place within the children. “Teachers are noticing that students work at a harder pace; there is not much review, and they are more at grade level,” says Horton.

To look at the panoramic view of teaching, Flemington says, “We looked back at teaching. We had to change our teaching [methods] because the [former] strategies were just not working.”

Christina Serra, a third grade teacher at Roynon Elementary School, comments on her own teaching strategies. “The class is more productive because there are smaller groups [of students] and more individual time.”

Thinking for a moment, Brown affirms that “the greatest benefit is the one-on-one attention that students receive, whether for acceleration, tutoring, or feedback.”

There appears to be few, if any, drawbacks to the state measure. However, Lisa Young, a second-third grade combination teacher at Oak Mesa Elementary School, faces an additional challenge as a result.

With nine second graders and nine third graders, Young balances twice the amount of regular curriculums and lesson plans within half the time. Students chosen for this type of learning environment are “independent and have few behavioral problems,” she adds.

Although this provides an opportunity for Young to grow professionally, “There should be some sort of an incentive [for the job],” Young says.

Proposition 227

Reduction in class size, individual attention and higher student performance are the new visions for education. But what if the child does not understand English? The demise of bilingual education occurred with the passage of Proposition 227, which stipulates that teachers instruct children in English.

With the new mandate, these teachers were given the right to assist students who had difficulty with the transition to English. But even this opportunity was excusable for a year-long period.

“We have a very low number of LEP (Limited English Proficient) children in the district,” says Horton. With 3.6 percent of the student population enrolled in bilingual education, she adds, “We have not been affected very much; we qualify as an English-only district.”

There is a Spanish-Assisted Learning Program that allows teachers to provide support for children who do not understand a concept in English.

“There was a lot of anxiety in the District. Parents must sign a form that allows a child to be helped with certain concepts in Spanish,” Horton replies. However, the lesson “cannot be taught in Spanish.”

Although there is a small number of children who were enrolled in bilingual education, Flemington says, “Some of the children are going to fall between the cracks.

“It has been proven that children learn best in their primary language instruction, transitioning to English.”

The real confusion of the new measure does not lie within the political state arena, however, but within the everyday classroom. “I have seven LEP students; only two parents signed the permission slip, which means that five other students cannot be helped at all with concepts in Spanish,” says Serra.

“Countless money was wasted on a new reading series that can no longer be used because it is in Spanish,” she continues.

Beyond the stipulations of the mandate, the main emphasis of the measure is to create an effective learning environment for Spanish-speaking children. “Even though the situation is not ideal, we should turn it and make it into a positive one,” says Flemington.

Within the classroom, Serra says she has tried to provide new learning methods for her students. “I teach lessons with more vocabulary, move at a slower pace and use numerous visuals.”

In previous years, there was an increase in B-CLAD (Bilingual Cross Cultural Language and Academic Development) credentials as a result of the rise in bilingual education. Aside from the implementation of Proposition 227, Flemington affirms, “We are still granting B-CLAD credentials. We still have to look and see how we are going to best educate these children,” she says.

“Even though the law changes, the children do not change; they still cannot speak English,” says Serra. “I will still have to find [innovative] ways to teach these children.”

It appears that change is the dominant word throughout the educational system of the state of California. Perhaps just as the seasons change, so do the laws. In some cases, the results of these changes drastically altering classroom policies and student development.

Reducing class size and providing English-only policies have created refreshing and innovative strategies to teach children, along with a half dozen new quandaries to solve within the system.

Education may never reach complete perfection because there will always be inevitable changes within teaching theories.

But, as the morning bell rings for a new school day to start, the 20:1 ratio and English-only policies fade from the minds of many teachers. Anxious children will begin to occupy their seats with yearning eyes, waiting to learn new things.

Throughout the day, they may begin to explore the history of the United States and the Civil War, learn how to solve word problems, begin reading their favorite “Goosebumps” book … but not before they can anxiously recite “The Pledge of Allegiance” with fellow classmates.

At that moment, teachers may begin to realize that they have met their destination. For most educators, that is to take a journey with their students, all the while helping to develop and cultivate their young minds along the way.