It seems these days that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with public education. Well I can’t speak for most of the world, but for my little end of the teaching world I think the problem is too many. Too many changes too fast, too many things to do in too little time, too many kids in a room and too many people with too many ideas on how to fix it all.
A short time ago the state of California began allowing school funds to be spent differently than before. Funds that were traditionally restricted by category were opened up for use across categories. In addition, schools received new funds meant to assist struggling students. This more open use of funds did not come without some strings attached, however. Districts were required to involve staff and community members in the decision making process of how the funds should best be spent.
I have been involved in the process for the last 2 years as a teacher and a community member and while it is clear that input is being collected, it is unclear to me if it is being heard. Therefore I made the decision to draft this letter to our local superintendent to express my feelings about how funds would best help our children and our schools.
I think there are others who have similar feelings about what is lacking in our public schools, so I am posting this letter here. Please let me know if you agree, and feel free to pass on any part of what I have said to your local administration.
With California’s Local Control Funding Formula the goal is for districts is to gather feedback from employees, parents and community members on how district funds are budgeted. I have participated in this process as both an employee and a community member, and was quite excited to be a part of the process. However, after seeing how the whole process works I am really not quite sure that my input is really being heard or considered. I don’t mean to say that the process is not working, nor that input is not taken into account. However the two methods that have been used to gather my input, district survey and LCAP community meetings, seem to be more efficient at gathering broad categories of information than on identifying specifics. When only broad categories are surveyed it leaves specific choices in the hands of district decision makers, rather than other stake holders. With that thought in mind I made the decision to draft a letter that outlines my specific recommendations. My hope is that this will provide clarity on what I feel would be of benefit to our students to better fulfill their needs and education. While these opinions are my own, conversations that I have had with others in the district lead me to believe that I am not the only one who feels that what I am presenting may be of benefit to our district. Of course the final decision of how funds will be spent is in the hands of the district, however my hope is that my ideas will at least be considered.
I think the number one priority for district finances should be to restore lost resources, most specifically support personnel. You see, it is important to have good curriculum, safe and clean facilities, technology, books and materials, however the most valuable asset to schools are people While I think that competitive teacher salaries are important to attract the best I think the teacher’s union does a fine job of presenting the benefits of competitive salaries. And while district level support is needed and necessary I don’t think this is an area that has been neglected in recent years. My intent here is to focus on a need that I have not seen adequately addressed in either surveys, LCAP meetings, nor in union negations. What I am suggesting is that not enough resources are currently being funneled into support personnel.
I have been a part of this community and/or employed by this district since 1988. During that time I have repeatedly seen the number of support personnel cut while class sizes has gone up and teacher responsibilities and work load have increased. When I began working in this district, roughly 20 years ago, we had bi-lingual aides, title one aides, special education aides, custodians that cleaned our rooms nightly, TOSA’s (Teacher on Special Assignment) as well as a myriad of office assistants. When the budget was tight many of these positions understandably were lost. However, as money has been restored these critical support resources have remained unfilled or eliminated. In addition, when fiscal challenges arose class sizes was increased, and to the best of my knowledge have not restored to previous levels. While I acknowledge the importance of competitive salaries, I believe that an increase of support personnel would help decrease the workload and improve the morale of overworked teachers in a way that a higher salary cannot. While I recognize that the district has made it a priority to provide technological and instructional support at the district level, I think that the area that is being neglected is support at the individual school levels. While I don’t think I am alone in that I am glad to chip in when times are tough, I never imagined that my Master’s degree was preparing me to empty my own trash, dust my own room or to spend my days on some of the myriad of clerical and support duties that could be performed by classified employees. I think that better support at the school level would free teachers to have more time for lesson development, provide meaningful feedback for student work or work with struggling students during off school hours. With that in mind I have some specific recommendations in the following areas.
- Special Education Instructional Assistants– As a Resource Specialist much of my job is spent working with and coordinating the time of RSP Assistants. There was a time that we were able to provide support within our reading intervention classes, grade level ELA and math classes and in addition support many science, social studies and survey classes. However, the number of aide support hours allotted to our team has been diminished a bit at a time, and now many classes with a need must go unsupported. During the same time period that support has diminished our expectations to support students has expanded. Not only do we provide support for students with IEPs, we also support EL students, students with 504s and students with no such designation who we support under an RTI (Response to Intervention) model. Not only do we feel handicapped by the limited number of support hours available, we also struggle with finding and keeping quality personnel for these positions. For some reason our district has determined that SDC (special day class) Assistants work 29 ¾ hours while Resource Assistants work 25 hours per week. I have lost quite a few good assistants to SDC classes because they need to work as many hours as they can. I feel as if our need is just as great, if not greater, as the SDC classes since we support the entire campus, not just a small, limited number of students. I also feel that we should be working toward attracting and keeping qualified personnel in these positions to better support our students and teachers. Our department has 3 Instructional Assistant positions, and over the last 2 years we have had no less than 10 different individuals in those 3 positions. In one of the positions we had a long term sub for nearly a year as an adequate replacement could not be located. This constant turnover and lack of consistency has been a source of difficulty, challenge and confusion for both our teachers and students. I feel that a competitive salary offered with appropriate hours would go a long way to helping alleviate this difficulty for all.
- Bi–lingual Assistance– At our school we have two half day Community Liaisons, one who speaks Spanish, and a second who speak Vietnamese. These support personnel provide translation services when needed. While they are both helpful and beneficial, I feel as if we need more bi-lingual support. There was a time that we had bi-lingual translators in the classroom to help with instruction. Now I must reply on other students to translate, other teachers or Instructional Assistants who may be bi-lingual or resort to Google Translate. In addition, when I need someone to call a parent who does not speak English the correct language translator may not be available. One part of my job is to plan IEP meetings with parents, many of whom do not speak English. The district has a process to do this, however the process is cumbersome, inefficient and time consuming. I feel as if my time could be better spent if we had more support in this area specialists did not have to spend so much time trying to find someone who can properly communicate with a child or parent.
- Other Classroom Assistance– Large class size would not be as difficult to handle if we just had more assistance of some sort in the classroom. Many students who do not speak English, an increasing number of students with severe behavior problems and higher demands on student achievement have all combined at a time when extra classroom help is less available than ever. There was a time when our district had many title 1 aides available for extra assistance. I believe these are no longer available anywhere in the district. Their presence is greatly missed to assist with students educational activities, complete clerical jobs, or just provide an extra set of eyes and hands.
- Custodial Needs– I think the cleanliness of our classroom says a lot. A clean and orderly classroom sets the tone and creates an environment for our students to learn. Students do not thrive in chaos and clutter. While I understand the need to ask teachers to temporarily empty their own trashcans, I find that to be problematic as a general policy. I can’t remember the last time my room was dusted when it was not me doing the dusting. I feel as if we show our teachers that we respect their time and view them as professionals when we provide them with a cleaned classroom. Enough said on that topic, I just think this should be a higher priority.
While I think the problem in public education is too many, I think the solution may be more. More hands to assist with the work where the work really is. It seems that the more that is often offered is more advice, instead of more help. Teachers in California are some of the most highly educated professionals you could ever meet. A California teaching credential requires a minimum of 5 years, and most teachers go on to earn a master’s degree. Why do we want to keep bringing in experts, when we are the experts? Give us help where it is needed so we can do our job the way we know how to do it.