The high cost of spending less
Barbara Dell Carter is everything you dream of in a second grade teacher. Seventeen years into her career, she is highly skilled, brimming with warmth and enthusiasm, and, as anyone speaking with her for just a couple of minutes will realize, incredibly passionate about her life’s work.
She still has the zeal of a first-year teacher, easily seen in her eyes and smile as she points to the little welcome gifts she prepared for her kids to have on the first day of school – small bags of Lucky Charms with notes that say “I’m so lucky to have you in my class. Love, Mrs. Carter.”
“I know it seems silly, but they really love these little gifts, they get so excited,” said Carter of her students, who attend John Cotten Tayloe
Elementary School in Beaufort County. Her husband helped her cut the little messages out and tie them to the bags.
As we walk around her classroom, Carter points out all of the little ways in which she has prepared this room to be a great place to learn for her 21 second graders. Her positivity and excitement are palpable, but as we sit down to discuss her preparations for the upcoming year, Carter speaks in hushed tones about what is to come.
She is worried. Not the back-to-school jitters kind of worried; she has deep-seated concerns about the challenges she will face this year as educators grapple with a public school budget that spends $500 million less than what was spent in 2008.
Five years ago, the teacher assistant who is now sitting in Carter’s classroom preparing instructional materials would typically spend the entire day, every day, with Carter during the school year. That teacher assistant would help her manage 21 or 22 seven-year-old children who need to go to the bathroom, get fed, learn a lesson at a slightly slower or faster pace, or go to the nurse’s office, among many other possible situations, all throughout the day.
Now, that teacher assistant will be shared among four or five other classrooms. So maybe Carter will have a colleague help her manage her classroom for just an hour each day.
A high-needs student population relies most on its community
To understand why losing a full-time teacher assistant in Carter’s second grade classroom has a huge impact on her students’ success, you must first understand John Cotten Tayloe Elementary School.
Located in Washington, North Carolina, just a couple of miles from the Pamlico River, John Cotten Tayloe welcomes second and third graders. Nearby is another elementary school that houses kindergarten and first grade.
Seventy-seven percent of the school’s approximately 600 students received free or reduced lunch during the 2011-12 school year. Beaufort County is eligible for supplemental funding from the state budget, on account of its “low-wealth” status.
Principal Bubs Carson, who has served at John Cotten Tayloe for 13 years, explains that without the First United Methodist Church in Washington, he’s not sure where they would be.
“First United has adopted this school through the ‘Hand in Hand’ program for more than ten years,” said Carson. “Through their generosity, that church gives us money so that if a child has a hole in his shoe or needs decent clothes, we can go out and get what the child needs.”
The church also organizes a booksack program for the school’s neediest families. Every Friday afternoon, children from approximately 15 families are able to go to the front office and pick up a booksack that looks as if it’s stuffed with books.
The booksacks are actually loaded with food that the family can eat over the weekend. Guidance counselors spend time in each classroom to identify which of the children need this program the most.
John Cotten Tayloe has also had to struggle, like most other schools across the state, with large cuts to instructional supplies over the past several years.
“But we’ve been able to mitigate the situation somewhat,” said Carson. The school hosts summer and after-school programs, so they can bring in a little bit of revenue that way.
“But,” Carson said, “let me be clear. Our teachers have been back and forth to that Wal-Mart across the street purchasing their own supplies for their classrooms.”
While parents are asked to send their kids to school with very basic supplies, many families are not in the position to purchase a whole lot. “Our community has really come together to support our school,” explained Carson.
At the beginning of each school year, a school bus is parked in front of the Wal-Mart for the “Stuff the Bus” program. The entire community comes out—many who do not even have school-aged children—to purchase school supplies off of a list they are given, and then they place those supplies in the bus.
The impression that Washington is a tight-knit community that takes care of its own is felt inside the walls of John Cotten Tayloe. A few kids are already at the school—the week before it opens—because they just want to hang out and see a few familiar faces. Teachers who are preparing their classes interact with the familiarity of family members as they negotiate lunch gatherings and errands to run for each other.
The loss of teacher assistants
Even though teachers haven’t seen a salary increase in seven years, not counting a 1.2 percent increase last year that was offset by increased health care premiums, the school works hard to keep morale up.
“We are very fortunate to have little turnover, thanks to our strong family atmosphere,” said Carson.
Teacher assistant positions, however, have not been filled by Carson as people have retired or moved on.
“We had to make a decision three years ago – when a teacher assistant left or retired, we would just have to adjust without that position. And over the past three years, we’ve lost ten teacher assistants, either through attrition or transfer. No one has lost their job—some folks we transferred to another local elementary school,” said Carson.
John Cotten Tayloe has 29 homerooms, and five or so years ago, each of those homerooms would have had a teacher assistant.
But the state has been systematically pulling back funding for teacher assistants over the past several years. For this 2013-15 biennial budget, $120 million has been cut out of the state appropriation for teacher assistants, which amounts to a loss of nearly 4,000 teacher assistant positions statewide.
The cumulative effect these cuts have had on the classroom is clear. This year the school will have just eight teacher assistants to be shared by 29 classrooms.
This comes at a particularly difficult time, explained Carson, because educational trends are heading in a direction that would actually demand more personnel in the classroom.
“Twenty years ago, the style of a lesson might demand just one teacher at the head of a classroom, explaining a concept,” said Carson.
But today, teachers are expected to have multiple activities simultaneously taking place in the classroom. One group of fast readers might be plowing through a book while the teacher works with another small group on a remedial lesson. And a third group might be working on a math problem together.
“It’s as if our goals are skyrocketing toward the left, while our resources are taking a nosedive to the right,” said Carson. “Teachers are being asked to accomplish so much with, right now, so very little.”
The high cost of deep cuts to the classroom
Mrs. Carter’s room is bright, tidy, and well-stocked with books, crayons, markers, paper, and even three computers.
Her bookcase of leveled readers stands out. The books look to be in very good condition, and there are more than enough for her 21 students who start school on Monday.
But that’s not a typical scenario.
“These books are from Rigby,” Carter explained. Rigby is a division of the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. They provided her with a free set of readers if she promised to teach one of their pilot programs.
“I am really lucky to have these readers. Of course there is not much money for this sort of thing today.”
The General Assembly approved a budget this year that provides just $14 per student for textbooks. Textbooks—digital or paper—typically cost anywhere from $35 to $85 each.
Carter also has a separate wall of classic books, several dozen at least, that she purchased with her own money or with the help of the Parent Teacher Association. John Cotten Tayloe’s PTA has been very supportive of what the school needs.
Without the support of the PTA and the First United Methodist Church, it’s hard to imagine how Carter would cope with the kinds of scenarios she deals with on a daily basis.
“Often when children come to my classroom, they are hungry. They need to be fed before they can think about reading comprehension,” she explains. “And I don’t know how many children come to school who are sleeping three or four to a bed. And maybe one sibling wets the bed. So they come to school hungry, tired, and wearing yesterday’s clothes, sometimes soaked with urine.”
“As teachers, we feel that we need to fix all our students’ problems so they can get down to learning. Their intrinsic needs must be met first,” said Carter.
Every teacher, Carter speculates, at John Cotten Tayloe has bought clothing for students at one time or another, or taken a child to get cleaned up and fed so they can learn. They dig into their own pockets and rely on the support of the PTA and the church to help them.
Carter estimates, conservatively, that she spends $500-600 on classroom supplies and student needs each year. She says many teachers spend more, even if they don’t really have the money.
“I am lucky that my husband works in a field that is lucrative enough so that I can teach,” said Carter. Without that income, she doubts she would be able to continue in this line of work.
Carter is really worried about how she will ensure that her students accomplish the learning gains they need to make when she will only have a teacher assistant for one hour or even less each day.
A classroom of 21 students is not terribly large, explained Carter, but without support it will be difficult. “And now that they have lifted the cap on classroom sizes, what will we do? We can keep adding desks, but that’s not good for our students,” said Carter.
Many of Carter’s students have Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. These are state-mandated learning plans that are intended for children with disabilities or special learning needs. Teachers must provide specialized instruction and assessments for children with IEPs to help them achieve specified learning goals.
When you have increased class sizes and fewer educators in the classroom, it will be much more difficult to identify early on which children have special needs and need special accommodations.
“When the General Assembly looks at education, they look at numbers, not individual children. But there are so many other issues to consider,” said Carter.
Classrooms are no longer filled with homogenous groupings of students. Carter is working with a population that has a huge diversity of needs. Many students have IEPs, some students learn at an average pace, and some students are bright and skip ahead. She must manage several small group activities at once while trying to accommodate IEPs for many of her children throughout the day.
Without a teacher assistant in the classroom to help manage the needs of 21 little children, especially when they come to the classroom without their basic needs having already been met, it’s easy to become very discouraged.
“Fortunately, every single teacher in this building accomplishes so much because they love their job and they love these children,” said Carter. She knows they will push through, but it will be very difficult. “Ultimately, the children will suffer from such a huge lack of resources.”
“I just wish the lawmakers at the General Assembly would come to our classrooms. They need to meet with teachers and understand what it takes to meet the needs of our children,” said Carter.
“I am a taxpayer. I know no one likes to see their taxes increase, but if that money goes toward producing a generation of more productive citzens, then I don’t know what better investment there is that I can make.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919.861.1460 or [email protected]