The fifth-graders in Jolie Kelly's gifted and talented (GT) center class at Bull Run Elementary in Centreville file into the room and take their seats after music class Friday. As they do, Kelly tells them to get ready for a vocabulary quiz. Instinctively, each child pulls out a folder, some labeled, "Privacy" and places it between himself or herself and the closest seat mate. The desks are arranged in a team-model, creating a larger table with a grouping of individual desks.
"The biggest initial challenge is that I have a room for 25 students and I have 32," Kelly said. "The biggest thing I wish I could do, even in a GT classroom, is teach to the variation in needs and I can't do variation. Fifth grade is an SOL [Standards of Learning] year. We're getting ready for the SOLs."
On Thursday, the School Board adopted its fiscal year 2004 budget, which includes measures aimed at eliminating classes with 30 or more students. The budget also adds back four of six Head Start classrooms that were originally cut; includes a 2 percent market-scale adjustment for all employees and a step increase for all eligible employees; adds a step 18 for support employees; increases teacher salaries by an additional 1 percent; and adds two staff development days.
"I'm very happy the board has finally chosen to make class size a priority," said School Board member Rita Thompson (At large). "It's something the community has asked us to do. I hope in the future years we keep it as a priority."
FOR KELLY, the approved class-size reduction plan means she will have more time to devote to her students. It also means less paper work, less planning and more time for fun activities such as an outdoor joust with scooters and plungers while the students study the medieval period.
"I don't know if they know the class is oversized," Kelly said of her students. "I think they know. Sometimes they have to wait to get to me. Sometimes they need to have another activity, like math, while waiting for me to edit their writing.
"I like to connect with everyone personally and academically. Even if it's to look over their shoulder and say, 'Do you need me?' I fear for the one that is quiet … that I might miss something because I'm not aware."
Kelly, a teacher with Fairfax County for 16 years, has had classes as large as 36 students, but said 20 is the ideal number for fifth-graders. This year, she opted to have 32 students rather than have a split fourth- and fifth-grade class to have less students.
"When you have a large class, behavior and personality is another challenge. We become like a family and sometimes personalities don't mix," Kelly said. "This is a good group. They're a little chatty. I've had them since the fourth grade."
THE APPROVED CLASS-SIZE reduction plan adds 92 elementary teachers and 15 administrator and support staff positions. In addition, it changes the staffing formula by counting students with special needs as a full student instead of half a student as they are now because typically the students do not attend class for a full day.
"Our students with special needs spend significant time in our classroom facilities," said Alice Farling, assistant superintendent of the Department of Special Services. "We're pleased they will be counted as a full student because it recognizes they are a body in the classroom."
To reduce class size at the middle-school level, the plan calls for every school to receive an additional staff member. Currently only middle schools that use block scheduling receive anywhere from .5 to 1.5 additional staff members. It also reinstates the 28-student cap on SOL courses at the high-school level that was eliminated during last year's budget cuts.
WHAT THE $1.6 BILLION BUDGET did not do was restore all six Head Start classrooms as School Board member Ernestine Heastie (Providence) had hoped for, or restore a step for some support employees that was lost in 1991, which the employee associations pushed for in the waning days of the budget debate.
Board member Kaye Kory (Mason) said the school system has 3,000 employees affected by the lost step, however, it would have cost $4 million per year to restore it.
"There is not a board member here that doesn't want to restore the step when we have the money," Kory said.
The budget year was not as bleak as the School Board had predicted late last year. In all, the school system was faced with cutting about $3.2 million, as opposed to $48 million the previous year. This year's cuts mostly came in the form of in-house fiscal management such as holding off on filling vacancies and across the board department cuts rather than reducing programs.
The FY 2004 budget takes effect July 1.