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Panel OKs $13 million bill to cut class sizes

A $13.6 million pet project of public education officials and Gov. Mike Leavitt cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.

The House Education Standing Committee forwarded HB182, which would provide $13.6 million for middle school class-size reduction efforts, to the House for debate.The proposed spending mirrors that outlined in Leavitt's unprecedented $2.1 billion budget proposal for Utah public schools. It would cut class sizes by three students in grades seven and eight.

Utah's average class size is the nation's highest, with 24 students per teacher. The national average is 17.

"This is a major issue this legislative session," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Lloyd Frandsen, R-South Jordan. "The problem is so overwhelming to us."

Middle-level students face challenges unique to other age groups, education officials say. They are vulnerable. Their self-esteem is mercurial. Their tendencies for at-risk behaviors tend to surface.

"Twelve- and 13-year-olds need nurturing, they need caring, and adults can't do that if they're dealing with 180 of them a day," said Dorothy Bingman, principal of Evergreen Junior High in the Granite School District and president of the Middle Level Association.

"This is the age students make decisions whether to drop out."

The bill would require schools to submit to local school boards written plans detailing creative ways the money would be spent for class-size reduction.

Ellen Thompson, who teaches seventh-graders at North Layton Junior High, revealed strategies implemented at her school to better accommodate needs, including teaching teams and regular one-on-one chats with students.

"It really makes a difference in how well those seventh-graders succeed," she told the committee.

School boards would be required to annually report to the Utah Board of Education on how funds were used. The state board would report to the governor and Legislature.

A separate bill sponsored by Sen. David Steele, R-West Point, calls for a middle school task force to address other issues common in the middle grades.

Efforts to improve middle level education also are cropping up in universities.

The Utah Board of Education last month approved a premier middle-school-level teaching endorsement at Utah State University.