It's sometimes a tough lesson for pupils: They're free to choose their friends but not their classmates or teachers.
Three weeks into the school year, the lesson is sinking in for a new round of elementary pupils whose best friends got assigned to different--and, inevitably, more desirable--classrooms.
And it is sinking in with parents left wondering how their children wound up in the classes they did--why, for example, their third-grader was assigned to the school's only combination third- and fourth-grade class. Or why their well-mannered son or daughter comes home with tales of how the teacher spent a half-hour dealing with disruptive classmates.
Although the process of forming classes is a dispassionate one--based on some things as statistically simple as class size and boy/girl ratios--the outcome can be a source of high emotion for pupils separated from friends or for parents who feel their child's future is being compromised by having the wrong teacher or classmates.
The ability of parents to influence class assignments--ahead of time or after the fact--depends on the policies of the district and individual principals, say Orange County educators.
Most of the decisions about who is in what class this fall were made last spring, based on the recommendations of teachers.
"I wouldn't call it bartering; what (we) are trying to do is get a good group together," says one veteran teacher in the Newport-Mesa district. "Personalities are very important. We also consider two kids who are explosive together. We try to separate little cliques that could cause problems. We try to get a good mix, some bright, some middle, some lower."
The methods of assigning pupils to classes vary by school. In many, teachers of one grade are responsible for forming the following year's classes in the next grade level. As new pupils enroll during the summer, they are added to the lists.
Do discipline problems one year mark a child for the next?
Not necessarily, says Debbie Derloshon, who has taught at three elementary schools in the Saddleback Valley district and is now a mentor for other teachers.
"There are some students who carry baggage, but we don't go back and plow through records. We give them a fresh start because children change so quickly at that age."
What can parents do if they are dissatisfied with their child's class assignment? First, say teachers and administrators, try to be objective about why it is that you are unhappy. Did your child have a bad experience with this teacher previously? Has your child been at odds with the other pupils in the class in the past? Or is it simply that your child wants to be in class with his or her best friend?
If you decide to go to the school and seek a class change for your child, you should have compelling reasons. Be prepared to meet with the teacher in question and possibly the principal at the same time. A case stated in positive terms rather than negative ones is likely to find a more receptive ear, several principals said.
Often, principals say, a perceived problem in the first couple weeks of school works itself out. The reality is, most administrators are reluctant to reshuffle classes. They are proud of the professionalism of their teachers and are confident of the methods by which assignments are made. That attitude is found in private as well as public schools.
All that is not to say that changes don't sometimes get made.
After a few weeks, when enrollment stabilizes, principals usually need to make some reassignments to keep class loads in balance. If a parent has requested a change, and it is compatible with the overall goals, some principals are receptive to honoring those requests.
Mimi Glueck, an elementary teacher for 30 years, the past 12 in the Newport-Mesa district, says that each fall a number of parents request class changes.
"They're generally told that in two weeks they probably can (make the class change). But what happens is that by then a lot of the concerns will be gone, and the children are fine" in their original class, Glueck says.
At some schools, such as Arovista Elementary in Brea and Stoddard in Anaheim, requests for teacher changes are rare.
"I don't recall transferring a kid ever," says Arovista Principal Anne Flesher. "If there are problems, we first have the parent talk with the teacher so they know where each (is) coming from. I haven't ever had a parent come in and say a teacher isn't willing to hear about a problem."
At Stoddard, a year-round school with 1,002 pupils, parents are more apt to want to change one of the four schedule "tracks" their child is in than change the teacher, says Principal Joan Pettite, who tries to honor such requests.
While some parents want all their children in the school to be on the same track so that they have the same vacation period, others want their children in different tracks so the children are not all at home at the same time, Pettite said.
For parents of youngsters in schools on traditional schedules, the timing of requests for changes is important--and so is patience.
"It's difficult for parents who immediately approach the principal to see why a change can't be made," says Rich Thome, assistant superintendent for elementary schools at Capistrano Unified.
"Enrollment tends to come in slowly for the first couple of weeks, and classes don't get full till October. This means if kids are changed too early, it could overload classes."
When teachers and principals begin forming classes for the following school year, they are trying to create classes that balance pupil learning ability, leadership skills, gender, reading level and ethnicity. Thus two friends who share many characteristics can find themselves separated, playing a similar balancing role in different classes.
At many schools, class lists are developed separately from the decision of who will teach the class. Later, the principal makes adjustments and assigns a teacher.
Armed with each pupil's academic and personal data on a card--often, a pink card for girls and blue for boys--the teachers work to create an equitable mix, looking for unique traits that balance the classes and preventing any one teacher from having to bear the brunt of difficult pupils.
"The key word is heterogeneous," says Tim Harvey, principal at Laurel and Olinda elementary schools in Brea. "We want the students to blend together, so when they're forming the classes, the teachers keep in mind independent workers and those who are more of a challenge."
Says Jill Brick, a second-grade teacher at George White Elementary in Laguna Niguel: "We look at whether a child is a good leader, for instance, or has special talent in art or music. Or if one speaks Spanish and his friend knows how to translate, we try to buddy them out.
"I had a boy with (limited mobility), so we didn't want him to be out in the portable (classrooms). We want to make sure he's in the building, so he doesn't have to walk as far," Brick recalls.
At some schools, such as Heninger Elementary in Santa Ana, classroom teachers prepare the pupil cards but the principal and resource teachers form the classes, using the youngsters' reading levels as a guide in creating a balance.
At other schools, all the school's teachers are present as classes are being formed. Although teachers occasionally fear the worst when they get their first glimpse at their class lists, horse-trading is uncommon, principals and teachers say.
"The hand you're dealt is pretty much what you take," says Derloshon of the Saddleback district.
"Teachers don't get together and say 'I'll give you my three weird guys if you give me your three best guys.' I'm sure it happens sometimes, but I've never seen it."
Other considerations affecting placement are the Gifted And Talented Education program and the need for combination classes on some campuses.
Some districts cluster their GATE pupils at magnet campuses in all-day classes while others have after-school programs or pull youngsters out of their regular classrooms periodically for enrichment classes.
When split, or combination, classes are necessary to manage class sizes, educators try to fill them with independent workers. An academically mature second-grader would be considered a better candidate for a second/third combination class than one who needs more teacher attention.
While acknowledging that the system isn't perfect and that some adjustments in class assignments are prudent, educators urge parents to not underestimate the ability of schools to create successful class groupings.
Bob Gardner, principal at Clara Barton Elementary in Anaheim, is among those who doesn't buy into the idea that some parents have of "best" and "worst" teachers. Parents are lucky that he doesn't, he says. Otherwise, in order to be equitable, he'd be forced to assign kids to a poor teacher after they've had a good one.
"We officially don't honor requests, but we do allow parents to give us input on their child to help us determine the class," Gardner says. "But we're really not interested in the public's perspective on which teacher is best, medium, worst."
It is the professionalism of the teachers, principals say, that ensures the general workability of class groupings.
"The teachers know the students, which ones work well together and which ones will form a heterogeneous group," says Flesher at Arovista. "They're the ones who know best."