Putting squeeze on creativity
PUNTA GORDA — The classroom was finally silent, but only moments before it was completely filled with the animated voices of a group of 40 drama students.
The 90 minutes of peace that Punta Gorda Middle School drama teacher Rudi Wolfahrt took in afterward only occurs every other day — it’s his only time for planning.
(Members of the school board diminished middle and high school teacher planning periods by half this year to deal with budget shortfalls.)
Wolfahrt’s overcrowded classroom is a result of the spillover caused by the Class Size Amendment, a citizen-approved modification to the Florida Constitution that sets limits on the number of students in core classes in the state’s public schools.
While the number of middle school students enrolled in English, language arts, science and math is limited to 22, “exploratory classes” — those classes that are considered arts and foreign language programs — can sometimes exceed 70 students per teacher.
“The unintended consequences of mandates can be very scary,” said Ellen Harvey, a school district curriculum specialist in fine arts and world languages. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If you talk to a band or chorus instructor, they might tell you that they need a big ensemble to really get the sound they want.”
While the original legislation for Class Size was passed in 2002, the 2010-2011 school year marked the first time schools were penalized for noncompliance.
But larger classes doesn’t guarantee that every student can take them. Morgan Varnam, 13, said she “loves to be on stage” and has ambitions of performing as a film actor, but she will not be able to take Wolfahrt’s drama class this year.
“We can’t guarantee that every student will get the arts program of their choice because it depends on their grade level,” said Wolfahrt. “Morgan would love to be in my class, but when you take a look at her schedule, she would have to change her science and math, and that becomes too much of an issue.”
Wolfahrt said that administrators first make sure children receive their core classes, then focus on scheduling any remedial classes they might need to pass their Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, before they are subjected to arts programs. The FCAT, which has become controversial since it was administered in 1998, requires teachers to “teach the test” rather than fundamental material in core subject areas. It is scheduled to be phased out by 2014‑2015.
Because some of the students don’t receive their preferred elective, teachers have started offering after-school clubs so students have the opportunity to take their arts classes after hours. While some of the teachers receive compensation for the after-school hours, Wolfahrt said that others volunteer their time for free.
However, district officials are trying to give every student a chance to be involved in the arts. This year, the district implemented block scheduling in middle schools — a type of academic calendar in which students have four classes every other day. Each class is scheduled for a longer period of time than normal.
The itinerary has increased their courses from six to eight.
“Punta Gorda Middle School used to be the only middle school with a drama program,” explained Harvey. “Now, other schools like Murdock and Port Charlotte middle schools have a drama department, too. With more periods, we are able to offer more class options and that is a good thing for our arts programs.”