(Pic by Max Wolfe)
(Pic by Max Wolfe)

Miami-Dade public schools using virtual classroom software to meet class-size restrictions

By | 01.19.11 | 9:15 am

In an effort to adhere to guidelines limiting the number of students allowed per public school classroom, 54 Miami-Dade schools are turning to virtual classroom technology in an era of massive cutbacks and teacher layoffs.

The move, apparently a result of the 2002 Class Size Reduction Amendment that was vindicated by voters who overwhelmingly rejected Amendment 8 last November, replaces traditional instruction provided in core courses by a teacher with computer software overseen by “facilitators” who monitor progress and provide technical support. The new classrooms, dubbed “e-learning labs,” effectively sidestep the class cap requirements and allow for upwards of 40 students.

According to The New York Times:

School administrators said that they had to find a way to meet class-size limits. Jodi Robins, the assistant principal of curriculum at Miami Beach High, said that even if students struggled in certain subjects, the virtual labs were necessary because “there’s no way to beat the class-size mandate without it.”

Rocky Hanna, principal of Leon High School in Tallahassee, was a vocal supporter of Amendment 8 when efforts began ramping up last spring to repeal the 2002 class-size requirement that had been vastly underfunded by the legislature in the years following its approval.

After the final round of funding fell through, however, Hanna jumped ship and was able to meet the hard cap without cutting programs, extracurricular activities, co-teaching courses or implementing virtual classrooms:

“I spoke in favor of this amendment last spring,” Hanna told The Florida Independent. “I was convinced by some people with the American Association of School Administrators that this was the right thing to do, so we as principals would have flexibility in our schedules and I signed on. I thought if all things were equal, especially the funding piece, that it would be nice to have a little more flexibility and not have the hard cap at 25. By the end of the session, I realized that all things were not going to be equal and once they decided not to give the final round of funding up all bets were off.” #

Hanna says that his school was able to meet the requirements of the original 2002 class size amendment after a summer filled with long days and nights of brainstorming and number-crunching by teachers and administrators. He also notes the support of Superintendent Jackie Pons in providing the resources that made it possible for Leon to reach the 25-student-per-class cap without having to cut teachers, programs or extra-curricular activities — precisely the kinds of “scare tactics” made by supporters of Amendment 8. #

“We just rolled up our shirt sleeves and went to work this summer, and did a lot of number crunching, and looked where we’d need to hire some people in order to make it work without cutting programs,” he says. “It also took some tough decisions at the district level, with teachers not having raises, and looking at what programs and what fat could be cut at the district level and given back to schools. We didn’t lose any arts programs, or student government, yearbook, newspaper. We certainly could have used the $350 million the legislature had originally committed to support the final round of class size. If we’d had that money we could have done even better.” #

Parents and teachers in Miami-Dade schools are wary of the new program, and the PTA has established a committee on virtual classrooms to mitigate confusion over the new plan. One teacher candidly told the Times:

“The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal,” said Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami. “They’re standardizing in the worst possible way, which is evident in virtual classes.”

While Ms. Kirchner questions the instructional effectiveness of online courses, she said there was a place for them at some level.

“I think there should be learning on the computer,” Ms. Kirchner said. “That part is from 2:30 p.m. on. The first part of the day should be for learning with people.”

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