One Philadelphia school solved overcrowding by placing first, second, and third graders in a single classroom. Another is using a different substitute every week to teach Spanish. Elsewhere, there are reports of class sizes of 35, 36 - and more.
Oversize classes are not unheard of at the beginning of the year in Philadelphia, where student mobility often makes planning tough. But in the past, the school system was able to hire more staff to ease crowding.
"In previous years, we carried a couple of hundred extra teachers, but we just don't have that luxury anymore," said Naomi Wyatt, the district's human resources chief. "We have to be a little bit more conservative about bringing folks in full-time until our numbers are final."
So Danny Allen Jr., a freshman at Central High, has had a rotating cast of substitutes for Spanish I, and could until late October, when the district's "leveling" process is complete, adjusting staffing to reflect actual enrollment.
That process is being used for other previously oversize classes as well.
"There is no structure," Allen, 14, said of his Spanish class. "There is no curriculum. One teacher tries to teach you something one week, and then the next week the new teacher repeats it."
At least, Allen said, things have improved from the first week, when more than 50 students were jammed in - one of 18 Central classes that had more than 50 pupils, a staff member said. No classroom fit that many students, so the group met in the auditorium, along with other oversize classes.
Allen hates the idea of losing two months.
"I do actually want to learn Spanish," he said. "We're going to be so far behind. It's unfair."
Accounts differ as to whether there are more oversize classes this year than in prior years. Wyatt said the numbers of oversize and "split" classes - where students from multiple grades are together in a single room - don't appear to be bigger than last year.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, disagrees.
"This is worse than we've seen it in a very, very long time," Jordan said.
Class sizes, according to the teachers' contract, may not exceed 30 in the lower grades and 33 in grades three through 12. But union officials said they have been told of numerous schools with multiple classes over those limits, and about split classes throughout the city.
The district had moved away from split classes when its finances were in better shape, reasoning that it is more difficult for a teacher to effectively convey two separate curriculums to children learning at different levels.
But at Overbrook Elementary, there are now two split classes - one with fourth and fifth grades together, and one that has first, second, and third graders in one room. Jordan said he had never before heard of a three-grade split.
Fernando Gallard, district spokesman, said Overbrook, a K-6 school with just 250 students, has often had the first-second-third split, in large part because of an excellent teacher who is trained to handle a class with students of different ages. Parents even request the class, Gallard said, because they like the idea of their children having one teacher over many years.
But, Gallard said, "the split is not intentional. It is something they are dealing with because of the resources. After leveling, the split classes may be resolved."
Crowded classes cost Jovana Acosta's daughter her first week of kindergarten. Acosta attempted to register the child at Bridesburg Elementary, her neighborhood school, in the spring, but was told there was no room. Officials told her she would receive a letter with an assignment for the girl at a nearby school.
Despite making a trip to district headquarters, Acosta had no assignment for Latyana until four days after other kindergartners started classes, when she was assigned to Olney Elementary, a 30-minute drive from her home.
Acosta works nights in Delaware and couldn't swing the Olney commute twice a day, she said. But officials told her that every kindergarten class closer to her home was full, she said.
"I felt terrible," Acosta said. "My daughter said to me, 'Mom, I just want to go to school.' "
Finally, at wit's end, Acosta called City Councilman Bobby Henon's office, where representatives were able to get Latyana enrolled at Lawton Elementary in Wissinoming, not far from Acosta's home. The girl began school on Tuesday.
"I shouldn't have had to jump through all those hoops," Acosta said. "Other people shouldn't have to go through all this."
District officials said they open up a new kindergarten class at a school only if there is space in a building and if 15 children are on a waiting list.
Overcrowding has been a particular problem this year at Central, one of the state's top schools.
Rachel Rodriguez, head of the school's foreign language department, said several Spanish classes are in situations like Allen's, with rotating substitutes covering until the district provides a full-time teacher.
"Consistency is the issue," Rodriguez said. "If someone gives an assignment and it's due at the end of the week, who's going to grade it the next week?"
Devorah Lissek's son, also a freshman at Central, is in an Algebra I class that had more than 50 students enrolled the first week. Now it's smaller, but is being taught by a substitute.
"It feels like it's taking too long to come up with a solution they should have figured out this summer," Lissek said.
The class situation is less than ideal, Lissek said, but what bothers her more is the principle - yet another hurdle to overcome because of the district's dire funding situation, like the notice that went out to students that Central already needs copier paper, and that the students must print things at home because there aren't enough resources to do so at school.
"It's demoralizing," Lissek said. "There's all these things that build up, and it starts to wear you down. I feel like as adults, we're not living up to our side of the bargain of what we're supposed to be giving our kids."