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Teachers Pained by Specter of More Cuts : Schools: Budget problems may lead to layoffs and larger class sizes. Educators wonder how they--and their students--will cope.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Standing between the guppy bowl and the turtle tank along the back wall of her second-grade classroom, teacher Lupe Mendoza-Fernandez discreetly pointed out some of her problems: the fidgety boy who still can’t read, the girl whose family can’t afford to buy her new eyeglasses, the boy who shows a head wound possibly inflicted by his parents. The list went on.

Mendoza-Fernandez said she was deeply troubled about how her time and energies would be further stretched if three more children are added to the 27 she has under her wing at the Elysian Heights Elementary School in Los Angeles.

“Each will get less individual attention,” the 12-year teaching veteran said Friday. “It’s not just the numbers, but where the students are at. There are so many different levels of achievement and so many family problems like alcoholism, violence and poverty.” And, compounding her worries about class size, two of her own children are students at Elysian Heights, a predominantly Latino campus nestled in the hills just west of Dodger Stadium.

Mendoza-Fernandez’s concerns were echoed by other teachers and administrators in the Los Angeles Unified School District one day after the school board was told it must cut an additional $33 million from its budget. District leaders say that increasing average class size in grades 1 through 8 to 30 students--up by three--and laying off hundreds of teachers may be the only way to solve this latest budget crisis.

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Almost every other aspect of district life already has been trimmed to cover a previous $241-million deficit in the $4-billion spending plan for 1991-92. The additional $33-million budget gap is due to cuts in state funding, a dip in lottery funds and higher-than-expected expenses, district officials say.

Nationally, the issue of how class size affects the quality of education long has been debated. Often, however, the questions are how much money should be spent to reduce class size and what the academic payoff will be. For the sprawling Los Angeles district, though, different questions now are being posed: Will adding three students to those classes irreparably harm youngsters, and isn’t there any other way to save money?

“When you have already bled and cut and excised, you look at what else you can do,” said district spokeswoman Diana Munatones. “You can’t cut out any more programs that are vital to the function of education.” So Supt. Bill Anton on Thursday suggested increasing class size in Grades 1 through 8, since classes already have been enlarged by three in Grades 9 through 12, she said. Anton is to present a detailed plan to the Board of Education on Tuesday.

“How these students will continue to learn with the presence of more students is something of concern, something that has to be looked at,” Munatones added.

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The average elementary class size around the country was 23 in 1987, according to the most recent statistics available from the National Center for Education Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. With an average of 28 students, California tied Utah for having the most crowded classrooms. Ranked best with 19 students per class were Vermont, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Just how severe an effect larger classes have on academic achievement and discipline is not clear, said Douglas Mitchell, an education professor at UC Riverside and the director of the California Educational Research Cooperative.

Tennessee recently reduced its average class sizes in kindergarten through the second grade from a range of 22 to 28 students to between 12 and 18. Students in smaller classes showed skills that were 1 1/2 months ahead of their peers in large classes. That is an impressive gain if continued for 13 years, Mitchell said. But, he added, there is no clear evidence that the improvements have continued.

Asked about the proposal to raise the Los Angeles class size by three, Mitchell said: “My bottom line answer is that it won’t do any good, that’s for sure. It will certainly do some small amount of harm. But there is a huge controversy over how much harm.”

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State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig said Friday that the Los Angeles district won’t need special state permission for the increase because state rules allow 30 students in classes from Grades 1 through 3 and 33 in Grades 4 through 8. “There is a quality issue,” Honig said. “Three is a significant addition. That’s three more kids to deal with. But I don’t know what other choices they have.”

Teachers union leaders suggest that central administration can be cut further. The union, stung by layoffs in recent months, also faces negotiations over a district plan to cut teachers’ pay by 3%.

Maxine Reagh, principal of Elysian Heights Elementary, said she is willing to take a deeper pay cut to avoid an increase in class size and the resulting possible layoffs of three or four teachers from her staff of 24.

Reagh conceded that class sizes were higher than 30 at many Los Angeles schools during the Baby Boom years of the 1960s. “But our society was different then. It was much more homogenous. There were fewer dysfunctional families and fewer children bringing problems to school,” she said. “My opinion is that raising class size now is heinous. It’s terrible for the students and terrible for the already-shaky image of public eduction.”

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The principal estimated that 340 of the 620 youngsters at her school have limited abilities in English. While Latinos dominate the surrounding Echo Park neighborhood, there are growing numbers of Korean, Chinese, Cambodian and Filipino immigrants.

That ethnic composition was reflected in Mendoza-Fernandez’s class, which was in full gear Friday on the multitrack school schedule that began in July. With the help of an aide who works three hours a day, Mendoza-Fernandez was leading her students through a writing assignment based on their science project of raising fish and turtles. “How do sardines and guppies differ from each other?” was the question of the morning.

Mendoza-Fernandez, who is 35 and is married to a vice principal at another Los Angeles school, said she had purchased the guppies, sardine, snails and crabs with her own money. Likewise, she bought markers and strawberry plants for the class because previous budget cuts made supplies and science project funds scarce. She seemed torn over whether she would continue to make such purchases in the future.

“If we get three more kids and have to take pay cuts . . . ,” she said sadly, her voice trailing off.

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A few minutes later, she polled her students about their thoughts on adding three to the class. Most said they wouldn’t be upset at all. But the voice of dissent was heard, too. “It’s going to waste time,” said Andrew Acevedo. Added Jesse Hernandez: “We’re going to have to work by ourselves more.”


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