‘Stressful for all of us’: Teachers foresee compromised instruction, increased financial contributions
By Matthew Stewart | (email@example.com)
While teachers will work to reduce student impact, they advise that classroom instruction and student learning will be impacted by a 2 percent budget reduction.
If Blount County Schools adopts an $81 million budget, it reflects a 6.8 percent decrease from the appropriations request and nearly 2 percent — or $1,639,041 — reduction from the current fiscal year. School officials forecast about $81 million in revenues, including the Blount County Budget Committee’s recommendation to move 9 cents of the current property tax rate to education, for fiscal 2013-14.
County government isn’t responsible for picking up the entire education tab. Local property tax is projected at $18,606,000 or 23.4 percent of revenues; local sales tax is projected at $10,464,000 or 13.2 percent; state BEP funding is $44,700,000 or 56.3 percent; and all other revenues are projected at $5,630,000 or 7.1 percent.
The majority of budgeted funds won’t trickle down into classrooms, according to school officials. Nearly 87 percent of expenditures are related to salaries and benefits, and about 13 percent are related to operating expenses.
During the past five years, the Blount County Board of Education has cut operating expenses in a “conscious effort” to protect personnel, who are “directly and indirectly providing services” to students, said Director of Schools Rob Britt. “As a district, we stayed away from impacting our employees. We wanted to continue being effective and functional.”
The percentage of personnel costs has increased as other parts have been reduced, Britt said. “As one piece of the pie gets smaller, the other piece gets larger.”
Teacher outfits classroom
Educators have responded in numerous ways. Some teachers, such as Lanier Elementary School’s Renee Powell, have worked to outfit their own classrooms.
Powell reportedly spends between $2,500 and $3,000 per year, purchasing classroom materials, school supplies, and technology for her classroom and students. “I would rather not take vacations and have the tools that I need for my kids than not have those tools at all.”
When Powell walked into her classroom six years ago, she was greeted by two chalkboards. No chalk. Some student desks and chairs.
“In my education courses, I was taught to incorporate technology into the classroom,” Powell said. “I was taught to provide hands-on, interactive lessons, because research has shown that’s how today’s children process information. Not to mention, technology is a part of our lives. We’re constantly using it. Why shouldn’t they use it, as well?”
During the past six years, she has worked to address this problem. The teacher has purchased a document camera, projector, and subscriptions to educational websites.
Powell has acquired eight classroom computers through donations. She purchased computer desks for the machines, which are more than seven years old.
The teacher also stands this summer to receive an additional 10 donated computers from a family friend. She will personally build computer stands.
Powell’s efforts are aimed at preparing students for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) online tests in 2014-15. She advised that many of her students don’t possess the necessary computer skills to take them.
The teacher plans to designate one day per week to teach keyboarding. By this upcoming school year, she hopes to have one computer per student in her classroom.
Powell, who teaches science and social studies, is further provided with 10- and 11-year-old textbooks that aren’t aligned with current and future standards. She supplements the material through a variety of hands-on opportunities and outside resources.
She uses the document camera to teach the water cycle, boiling water and projecting it on the dry-erase board. The teacher hopes to establish a flower bed on campus, so students can have more hands-on experience with plants and wildlife.
Powell has acquired books and equipment for classroom lessons, as well. She’s bought three microscopes and received grant funding to purchase another three microscopes.
In an effort to acquire more resources, the teacher also writes two to three grants per year. “If I don’t get a grant, I’ll buy it myself. I don’t have to do it, but I want my students to have every opportunity available to them. They don’t get the same things as other kids.”
Can’t learn on empty stomachs
While classroom resources are important, Powell advised that they don’t amount to much if children aren’t in a safe, nurturing environment. “Our kids have a lot of needs. We’ve got kids who show up with holes in their shoes. We’ve got kids who are literally starving. They can’t wait until 8:15 a.m. for breakfast, so I’ve always got something in my classroom. They’ve got so many needs, but we’re still expecting them to learn with empty stomachs and a couple hours of sleep.”
The teacher has bought backpacks, school supplies, and shoes for needy students. She and her peers have paid for field trips, as well.
Student needs must be met before they can learn, Powell said. The teacher provides instruction in numerous ways, including whole class, small groups, and one-on-one with students. She also works with a teaching assistant to further differentiate instruction.
‘Not going to stop’
For the past three years, Powell has also worked to address student health. She’s operated a running club through Blount County’s Coordinated School Health Program funding.
The teacher recently started a health and fitness camp. She will lead exercises and teach nutrition.
“I love what I do,” Powell said. “I’m there every day, including Saturday and Sunday. During the week, I get there by 6:45 a.m. I’m there until 4 p.m. or 6 p.m. every night then I go home and work on lesson plans.”
The teacher got back into her classroom last week, preparing it for next year. She’s also scheduled this summer to participate in Common Core State Standards training.
If required, Powell is resolved to work harder for her students next year. “I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing due to cuts. I might have to do more.”
Cuts compromise instruction
Trudy Woods, who has taught 13 years at Rockford Elementary School, shared a similar story. She spends an estimated $500 per year on her classroom and students.
The teacher purchases a variety of items, including folders, journal books, markers, magnet kits, T-shirts, and water bottles. “I try to stretch my supply list as much as possible, but I tend to run out by January and February. So, I’ll buy things as needed.”
While the teacher has learned to deal with reduced instructional supplies, she would struggle to deal with decreased planning time. Elementary school teachers would have 30 minutes of planning time, instead of 40 minutes, due to the elimination of three elementary art, music and physical education teachers.
“I know that 10 minutes doesn’t sound like a big loss, but it will be one,” Woods said. “It’s a loss that will bleed over into the school day.”
Teachers would lose time for making copies, planning, and other tasks, she said. They’d also lose grade-level planning time.
The school’s three second grade teachers, including Woods, plan their lessons together to ensure that every second-grader is being taught the same content, Woods said. Educators spend several hours each night compiling material, and they assemble lessons together.
Teachers also meet once per week with Principal Carol Chastain at this time, she said. They discuss student data and test scores, identify areas of focus, and plan their instruction around state standards, in addition to identified areas of focus.
“Planning is a big part of what we do in education,” Woods said. “I’d hate to lose it, because it’s going to impact instruction.”
The teacher is also concerned about the potential loss of teaching assistants, because she’s never taught without one. “We’ve relied on our TAs, because they’re a part of the instructional team. They help to provide one-on-one instruction to every child. With the new accountability model, new standards, and ever-increasing student needs, it’s hard to imagine what we’re going to be able to accomplish. I’m going to give it everything that I’ve got and work to be the best teacher possible. However, I’m still one person.”
In the past, Woods has divided her time between whole group instruction and small group work. She’s seen positive academic results using the two models.
“If the district has to make those cuts, it’s really hard for me to think about what’s ahead and the strains that it will put on us, the students, the parents, and the entire community,” she said. “It’s going to be stressful for all of us.”