While Amanda Freeman helps a tiny boy read the word “puppet,” the other kids chirp “Teacher! Teacher!” like baby birds eager for a worm. One wants to know what an otter is. Another says, “I’m done!” A girl dressed entirely in pink steps up and taps Freeman on the arm until she gets a glance.

Now imagine twice as many children tugging at her sleeve. Freeman has been one of the lucky kindergarten teachers at Carver, an Oak Park school that got supersmall classes for its littlest learners this year and last.

But schools like hers now face a double whammy.

Standard kindergarten through third grade classes will jump from 24 to more than 29 students per teacher next year as San Diego Unified faces an estimated $120 million deficit. The bulging classes will be even more of a shock to schools like Carver whose tiny-class experiment is now ending. Carver will give up a fifth of its teachers.

The luckiest schools are now the unluckiest ones.

“Everybody is drowning. But most of the schools got lowered into the ocean,” said Cindy Marten, principal of Central Elementary. “We’re getting shoved off the cliff.”

The City Heights school is slated to lose 13 of its 36 teachers as the program ends.

It began as a bold experiment: While small classes are adored by parents and teachers, some studies back them and some don’t. San Diego Unified decided to put them to the test, investing more than $30 million over three years to see if tiny classes would help the tiniest kids at select schools.

But as the stimulus money that paid for them disappears, San Diego Unified is scrapping small classes before it has any idea whether they worked. It will study whether they succeeded later this year — after they are already gone. Even if tiny classes prove to be a success, the district says it can’t afford them.

The tiny classes were a political powder keg from the start. Not all of the neediest schools got the small classes, which went to some wealthy schools and some poor ones as a way of running a controlled experiment. While the teachers union usually backs smaller classes, it protested against the plan, arguing it was unfair and unsustainable.

Their fears seemed to pan out a year later, when small classes were in jeopardy because of budget cuts. San Diego Unified decided to keep the program alive with federal stimulus dollars, even though the money would evaporate in two years.

To fit the stimulus rules, the school board changed which schools got the small classes, giving them to more than two dozen faltering, high-poverty schools. That tripped up the experiment by changing it midstream.

Marten is mustering data to show that it worked at Central Elementary, which got the small classes all three years. Second graders who had smaller classes for more than two years in a row did unusually well this year on school district tests, better than Marten has ever seen at her school.

But gauging its impact is much harder at other schools. Ross Elementary, for instance, got the tiny classes for the first year, lost them in the second year, and got them back this year after it missed No Child Left Behind targets. While Principal Tim Suanico was happy to have them, the back-and-forth meant that Ross got more teachers, lost teachers, got more teachers and now stands to lose them again.

Fans of the program are trying to find a lifeline. San Diego Unified is planning to gradually concentrate federal money for disadvantaged students on the very poorest schools. If smaller classes are shown to work, that federal money could eventually help fund smaller classes, said Richard Barrera, president of the school board. But that won’t happen for years.

“We never seem to have time to sit down and have these broader discussions about what works because we’re in this constant crisis mode,” said new school board member Scott Barnett.

At Carver, Freeman frets that a bigger class will mean resorting to worksheets just to keep all those little hands from tapping her shoulder. Thirty kids won’t fit in the computer lab where children practice phonics with animated games. In the classroom next door, they will barely fit onto the rainbow rug. More kids also means including more kids with special needs, already a balancing act for teachers.

“I want to know who every kid is,” said Andrew Rodaniche, another kindergarten teacher at Carver. “I would never want my child to become a number. But I also knew this wasn’t going to last.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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