Del Mar Elementary School teacher Kathie Mollica spent some extra time last week reworking her lesson plans, trying to find a way to give her second-grade students the extra help that tutors used to provide.
Her solution: small groups that might give her a few minutes to work with students who have fallen behind. She hopes that her 16 years in the classroom will be enough to make it work.
"The resources we had last year just don't exist anymore," she said.
Valley schools are opening this year with painful changes: larger class sizes, less support for struggling students and more duties for administrators.
Blame $3 billion in budget cuts to education statewide.
"This year is going to be more difficult," said Larry Powell, Fresno County superintendent of schools. "I don't think I've ever seen a [funding] loss like this."
Districts also are reshaping the way they do business, from reorganizing schools to exploring new ways to run programs.
Hundreds of jobs at local districts -- from food service workers to tutors to administrators -- have been cut from the payroll. And if state revenues fail to meet forecasts, more layoffs could occur at the end of 2011.
Fresno Unified, the Valley's largest district, eliminated 684 jobs this year out of about 8,000 employees through retirements, attrition and layoffs, including 24 teachers who won't return to their classrooms. Other districts around the Valley such as Madera, Central, Clovis and Visalia also cut support and administrative staff but avoided laying off teachers, although the contracts of some temporary teachers were not renewed.
School officials worry the cutbacks will hurt academic performance, which has gradually improved in recent years.
"We're going to have more students in our classroom, less support for our students and less support for teachers," said Michelle Asadoorian, president of the Fresno Unified School District board of trustees and a former teacher. "I can't believe that's not going to have an impact."
'Do more with less'
At Del Mar Elementary School in central Fresno, the tutors who worked with any student who needed extra help last year will now work primarily with special needs students.
"I already know I'm going to have several students who will be coming in at below grade level," Mollica said. "If I don't have the chance to work with them in small groups, the students who are just behind -- but don't qualify for special education -- may not get any extra help."
Many extras will be missing this year from Valley schools. For example, at Sanger Unified's Quail Lake Environmental Charter School, hourly staff who provided one-on-one help with remedial work won't be returning this year.
"We'll be doing less intervention work with students," said Brad Hubert, the school's principal.
Districts also are saving money by increasing class sizes.
In 2000, the average kindergarten class at districts throughout the Valley had 20 students. This year kindergarten classes will average 24 to 26 students. In secondary schools, the student-to-teacher ratios have grown from 23 to 32 students at many districts, according to California Department of Education data.
"We've saved some money by not trying to maintain those lower class sizes," said Craig Wheaton, superintendent for Visalia Unified.
Central Unified compensated for larger classes by adding teaching assistants in English and math. Other districts are keeping core and advanced placement classes smaller and expanding electives classes.
The trend worries parents such as Steven Chase, who has two children attending Hamilton Elementary School in central Fresno.
"I know the class sizes will get bigger," he said. "I think that has an impact on how well the kids do."
Fresno Teachers Association President Greg Gadams said he will monitor class sizes for adherence to the union's contract. Instead of capping the number of students in each classroom, the district relies on a formula that averages student attendance during the school year. Those averages range from 26 students to 1 teacher in kindergarten up to 32 to 1 in high school classes. But the actual number of students may be lower or higher, depending on the class.
And class sizes could grow even larger. A state budget deal brokered last month promised more money in the pipeline for classrooms if state revenues continue to increase.
So far those state revenues have failed to meet forecasts -- and now California schools could face more cuts at the end of 2011.
The Fresno County Office of Education is advising districts to prepare for the worst.
"We've got to be super cautious," Powell said. "We're telling districts to save their money ... hire late and leave positions open as long as possible."
Tight budget, big changes
The changes won't end at the classroom door. Districts are reorganizing to cut expenses.
Just southwest of Fresno, three districts merged to form the 2,400-student Washington Unified School District. Last year, voters approved the merger of West Fresno Elementary, American Union and Washington Union High School districts in a move to share resources and standardize curriculum from the primary grades through high school, said Joey Campbell, the new district's assistant superintendent.
The Lindsay Unified School District, faced with overcrowding, reorganized by building two new elementary schools and then eliminating middle schools.
Superintendent Janet Kleigl said students will attend elementary school until the eighth grade and then move on to high school, saving the district money on maintenance and support staff. The change was made for fiscal as well as educational reasons, Kleigl said.
"There's a large body of research out there that says this is more effective than the traditional model," she said.
Fresno Unified lost 23 professional staff, clerks and technicians, who worked in curriculum development, information technology and specialty programs, through layoffs, retirements and attrition. The district also reorganized administrative staff, reassigning some counselors from high schools to middle schools and transferring other administrators back into the classroom.
And in Clovis Unified, which eliminated 27 vice principal, learning director and counselor jobs last spring, Julie Duwe is one of many vice principals who will work at two schools this year.
On some days she'll split her time between the schools -- Maple Creek and Lincoln Elementary -- working at one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Last year Duwe was a full-time vice principal at Valley Oak Elementary School.
"It was rumored for a while that we might be taking on three schools at one time -- so two sounds pretty good," she said.
New ways to cope
As districts scramble to make ends meet, some parents worry that their children might miss out on opportunities.
"I hope the extra-curricular activities don't get lost in the process," said Melissa Pernsteiner, whose fifth-grade daughter attends Central Unified's Herndon-Barstow Elementary. "The school districts can only afford the basics right now."
Last year Pernsteiner spearheaded drives to buy volleyballs, cheerleading uniforms, sports medals and even tricycles for the Herndon-Barstow kindergarten. This year she's applying for a grant from a local hardware store for landscaping for some of the district's schools.
Pernsteiner, who is an accountant, said she's committed to learning about the district's funding issues.
"I'm informed, but that doesn't mean I'm hearing information that I like," she said. "But at least this way I'm not completely baffled when I'm asked to buy tissues for my child's classroom."