Teachers Do More with Less But Learning Losses Inevitable

Dec. 21, 2011 / By

New America Media/ Sing Tao Daily, News Report, Jane Xiao, Posted: Dec 18, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO – Jenny Trac runs the newcomer program at Visitacion Valley Middle School. Even though she is fluent in five languages and has 10 years of teaching experience, Trac worries that she could soon join the ranks of teachers targeted for a pink slip.

California’s public schools have experienced deep cuts in funding since 2007-2008. San Francisco Unified School District, a district that serves around 55,000 students, saw its general operating funds drop by 10 percent since 2008-2009, even though there was an increase of 400 students in district enrollment.

Visitacion Valley Middle School is feeling the pain. According to SFUSD, the school’s annual budget increased from $2.5 million last year to $2.8 million this year. But average spending per student actually fell by $750 due to a projected 20 percent increase in student enrollment.

Located in the southeastern part of San Francisco, where housing is cheaper, Visitacion Valley serves largely low-income and immigrant — primarily Asian — students. More than 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price meals.

After coping with years of cuts, principal James Dierke says the strategy he follows is simple: do more with less.

Dierke used to have three assistant principals, two head counselors and two counselors to help him manage school routines, but in recent years, he has downsized his team by more than half.

“We have lost $250,000 in school funding, but we did not want to cut from the classrooms so we decided to eliminate administrative positions,” Dierke says.

The decision was a hard one, but Dierke was glad that the money saved helped the school maintain its class size at 25 students per class.

Now, with one assistant principal and two counselors, Dierke finds himself running around school all day attending meetings, squeezing time for budget planning and other administrative responsibilities, all the while keeping an eye out for how to raise donations. The results are long days and overstretched schedules. On a reporter’s recent visit, a car went off in the parking lot. Dierke, finding no one to help, called security himself.

Although class size remains stable, classroom learning is taking a toll due to the school district’s decision to eliminate all teacher aide positions.

This year, Trac’s newcomer class has lost her Spanish bilingual teaching aide. Even though she had only 13 students at the start of the school year, all were immigrants with low English proficiency. Every day she leads them through basic language practices such as pronunciation, dictation, and grammar. Without a teacher aide to help her with translations and individual instruction, Trac spends more time code-switching between English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Spanish, than giving actual instruction. This prevents her from going deeper or faster on the curriculum. And this doesn’t even account for the time spent on classroom discipline and resolving student conflicts.

Districtwide teacher aide layoffs have hit non-English speaking parents hard too, says David Huang, chair of a bilingual parents’ group at Lincoln High School. In the past, non-English speaking Chinese parents relied on teacher aides to interpret for them with their children’s teachers. With the elimination of teacher aide positions, former teacher aides in the bilingual department have been reclassified into different departments with new responsibilities. They have less time to work as a language bridge between teachers and parents.

Since immigrant students tend to join throughout the year, Trac predicts her class could grow to as many as 40. In the past, her classes have grown from as few as seven to a high of 70. The school scrambled to find another teacher and funneled overflow students to another class. This year, Trac predicts she’ll be teaching 40 students by the end of the year.

Trac’s frustration over not being able to deepen the curriculum is compounded by the shrinking school year. Since the school year of 2010-2011, SFUSD has cut its school year from 180 to 176 instructional days, giving teacher four furlough days to reduce operating costs. Because teachers’ working hours are bound by contracts, Dierke says the curriculum has to be squeezed into fewer instructional days. Learning loss, she says, is inevitable.

Over and above these concerns is the constant threat of getting a pink slip. To Trac, there are a lot of uncertainties about her future because decisions about who gets laid off are largely determined by seniority rules.

As California’s budget crisis has deepened, it has become routine for school districts to send out a high number of pink slips in early spring. Teachers have to wait for the budget battles to be resolved before knowing whether their layoffs will be rescinded.

Teachers in San Francisco have been protected from massive layoffs by the city’s Rainy Day Fund, a city reserve created by voters almost a decade ago. With the approval of the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, the district can access up to a quarter of that fund to reduce layoffs.

In 2009-2010, SFUSD got $24 million from the fund and rescinded most of the 506 layoff notices sent to teachers and administrators. In 2010-2011, the district got $6.1 million. This year, it got $8.35 million, saving hundreds teacher jobs.

But next year, no one knows whether the city can come to the rescue again.

Trac — like many principals, teachers and parents — is just waiting for the day the pink slip comes.

San Francisco Unified School District:

Class Size: 22 in Kindergarten to 2nd grades, 21 in 3rd grade, 33 in 4th and 5th grades.

Teacher Layoffs: 147 pink slips were sent out, 141 were rehired.

School Year: 176 days, down from 180 days in 2009-2010.

(Data provided by EdSource’s survey in October, 2011)

Read more on budget impacts on local schools through New America Media’s “A Day in the Life of a Classroom” project, a journalistic collaboration between NAM and six ethnic media outlets to document the toll of budget cuts on local schools.

Read more on California budget on K-12 Schools here. Translations available.





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