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Schools prepare for a year of living with less

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
August 28, 2011
— Chin up.

Stiff upper lip.


Excited!


That’s the general attitude of teachers interviewed this month as they prepared to welcome students back into their classrooms.


“We’ll be fine,” said Edison Middle School teacher Shelly Kakouris. “We’re not a run-scared kind of staff.”


The professionals who teach about 10,000 public school students might be forgiven for worrying a bit this year, which is different from all other school years in recent memory.


The school board—forced by budget realities—cut nearly ever part of this year’s budget.


The results are bigger classes, fewer support staff and questions about how it’s going to work.


The district will have fewer teachers, social workers, coaches, principals, secretaries, clerks, aides and custodians and less money for supplies, training, maintenance and textbooks.


Parents, meanwhile, will see higher fees to enroll their children in school and sports.


A Gazette reporter and photographer toured schools in early August to talk to teachers about the situation.


Teachers weren’t required to be back to school until this week, but many teachers return to their classrooms weeks early to prepare for the new year. This year was no different.


Kakouris, who is beginning her 17th year, teaches sixth-grade math, reading and science. She was pulling tables around her classroom, figuring out how to change the focus from the blackboards on one side of the room to her new SMART Board, which works like a giant computer screen and whiteboard.


The school got a grant to buy the SMART Boards, and teachers took courses on how to use them, Kakouris said.


The layoffs announced in April led to multiple changes in school staffing. Some veteran teachers were able to keep their jobs by bumping those with less seniority. But to do so some had to change schools and the kinds of jobs they do.


Depending on their professional certifications, a librarian might become a classroom teacher, and a counselor could become an art teacher.


Some of the counselors, librarians and learning-support teachers whose jobs were cut have been converted to roaming support staff who will try to serve many of the same needs with reduced numbers.


“I am committed to our Journey to Excellence and raising student achievement,” Superintendent Karen Schulte wrote in a recent memo to the school board. “We will get through these difficult times, learn from them and build a better, stronger model of education.”


While some teachers were forced to leave, another group voluntarily sought greener pastures.


“It’s sad to see the people go. We lost a lot of very good people,” Kakouris said. “But I know our staff will make things work. We have a really focused staff.”


“I think there are probably some mixed feelings, but that’s education,” said Jenni Seisser, a Franklin Middle School special-education teacher, who noted that every year brings changes.


Second-grade teacher Maggie Gray at Washington School was bright-eyed as she surveyed the extras she had bought for her classroom with her own money—colorful bulletin-board borders, spongy interlocking flooring for kids to sit on during story time and storage cubes for reading books.


Gray, in her 20th year of teaching, said teachers are expecting larger classes, and they’re looking for new ways to work together to get things done.


The school board increased the minimum class size for high school electives and directed the administration to assign elementary teachers more conservatively than in the past.


As a result of this “tight” teacher staffing, the elementary schools are looking at 15 “hot spots.”


Hot spots are grade levels where, if a few more students than expected show up, school board policy would require an additional teacher.


The hottest hot spots are at Harrison, Lincoln and Van Buren schools, according to a recent district memo.


Harrison School has two kindergarten teachers and 50 students. The maximum class size in kindergarten through third grade is 25.


Lincoln School’s fifth grade has 60 students and two teachers. The maximum class size in grades 4 and 5 is 30.


Van Buren School has similar hot spots in kindergarten and grades 4 and 5.


The official student count in late September will determine whether more teachers are needed.


“I think we have a lot of talent, and we’re all in the same boat, and I can’t think of one teacher who doesn’t have the bests interests of the students at heart,” Gray said.


Renae Ferraro is one of those who had to change jobs this year. She was Monroe Elementary School’s librarian last year. This year, she’ll teach fifth grade at Monroe.


“I think everybody’s worried and wondering how the school year is going to go,” Ferraro said.


Nevertheless, Ferraro said she’s excited about the new challenge.


Ferraro said she worries about the loss of support staff—counselors, social workers and librarians—and about how Principal Lori Burns will handle that loss.


“I love and respect Lori Burns a ton, but I just hope she gets through it because a lot falls on her shoulders,” Ferraro said. “We’ll give her whatever support we can.”


Seisser, who also coaches high school softball, said she’s dealing with the uncertainties, but like her colleagues, she’s excited for the new year.


“It is what it is,” she said. “I’m grateful I’m still here.”



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