Special report, part 2: Teachers caught in the middle

Balancing the needs of districts with needs of students, teachers carry on amid a near constant barrage of troubling changes — from more kids in their classrooms and less money for supplies to the unsettling specter of layoffs

clambert@thetribunenews.comJune 10, 2012 

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 » | Part 2 | Part 3 » | Part 4 »

For 11 years, Sally Graybehl was a teacher without a classroom.

A longtime Lucia Mar Unified School District employee, Graybehl pushed a cart filled with supplies to teach 23 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms as one of the district’s four mobile science teachers.

“We did batteries and light bulbs and circuits,” Graybehl recalled recently. “We had an opportunity to be super hands-on with everything we did.”

But at the conclusion of the 2008-09 school year — when the Lucia Mar district issued more than 200 initial layoff notices — the four science positions were eliminated, though many teachers kept their jobs.

Graybehl’s seniority allowed her to move back into a classroom at Grover Heights Elementary. Other teachers have not been as fortunate.

There are 150 fewer teachers working at the county’s 10 school districts since the 2008-09 school year, according to information provided by the districts. The number includes mostly classroom teachers but also speech therapists, counselors and others with teaching credentials.

Teachers at some districts in the county faced another round of layoffs this spring. Employees at most districts say their teaching and support staffs have been whittled to the core.

“We’re on bare bones,” said Jillian Jaeger, a fifth-grade teacher at Kermit King Elementary in Paso Robles. “You would think the state would want children to have the best education possible.”

Over the past five years, the area’s 10 districts and the county Office of Education have cut $50 million cumulatively from their budgets.

Teachers today are faced with higher class sizes, less money for supplies, fewer support staff and increasing pressure for students to make gains in annual state tests.

Many say they personally spend hundreds of dollars each year on notebooks, crayons, ink cartridges, and other supplies for their students, or rely heavily on parent-teacher associations to fund field trips or art programs.

In addition, many have had to deal with the looming threat of future budget cuts, should voters reject Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure to temporarily increase sales and income taxes in November.

“We’re not laying anybody off, but if this budget proposal doesn’t pass, it’s going to be a bloodbath everywhere,” said Lloyd Walzer, president of the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association.

Unequal pain

The impact that budget cuts have had on teachers varies widely between districts and even between individual school sites.

Some schools receive more federal money based on the number of low-income students they serve, while more affluent districts rely on parents, PTA groups and other volunteers to provide needed supplies and support.

San Luis Coastal is one of three “basic aid” districts in the county and receives the majority of its revenue from property taxes — putting it in a much better position than most other districts in the county. Basic aid districts may keep money from local property taxes and still receive constitutionally guaranteed state basic aid funding, according to EdSource, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization based in Mountain View.

Even so, teachers at schools in the San Luis Coastal School District are facing cuts in programs and larger classes as the district grapples with an estimated $8.3 million deficit — about 10.3 percent of its budget.

Bruce Badrigian, president of the San Luis Coastal Teachers Association, is worried that the district won’t save that much by cutting parts of its elementary music program or a Morro Bay High School automotive class — as the school board recently voted to do. Cuts such as those are detrimental to students, he said.

“For some of these students, that’s where they excel and find success,” he said, specifically referring to the shop class. “We have more money in reserves than any other school district,” Badrigian added. “But there comes a time when you say, ‘This is a time to dip into those reserves and spend a little money and make the cuts more gradual.’ ”

Two districts — Paso Robles and San Miguel — have cut their school years short, a decision that impacts teachers’ paychecks and reduces the time they have to cover the curriculum.

Jim Lynett, president of the teachers union, Paso Robles Public Educators, said the union recently agreed to a furlough plan requiring schools to be closed six additional days this spring in part “to get the district back to solvency. … We want to maintain local control.”

The Paso Robles district has arguably been the hardest hit this year. In March, more than 30 full-time and 23 part-time educators received layoff notices, though some have been rescinded.

The cuts were necessitated by reductions in state funding, which contributed to a shortfall that threatens to leave the district without required reserve funds. Without the necessary reserve, the district would be fiscally insolvent, meaning the state could take over.

“It makes for really difficult morale,” said Jaeger, the fifth-grade teacher from Kermit King Elementary. She has received a pink slip in three of the nine years she’s been with the district. She received one this year but was relieved to report that it was rescinded.

“You want to be upbeat. You don’t want your students to know,” Jaeger said. “But you worry about your friends; you don’t know whether you’ll have income the following year, or insurance. There’s no continuity.”

Paso Robles High School counselor Xelina Rojas, who has worked there 15 years, said receiving a layoff notice temporarily put her life on hold. As the only Spanish-speaking counselor at Paso High, Rojas is the go-to person for many Spanish-speaking students and their parents.

“She’s like a fairy godmother to the community,” said senior Iris Anastacio, who plans to study materials engineering at UC Merced in the fall. Anastacio said Rojas encouraged her to get involved in leadership activities.

Rojas will keep her job next year because one of the school’s four counselors is retiring.

Paso Robles High ceramics teacher Kiley Wilson’s layoff notice was also rescinded, but he’ll be teaching Spanish next year instead.

“I understand they (administrators) have some tough decisions to make, and we don’t all fit,” Wilson said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else to lose their job because of me, but it’s hard to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take one for the team,’ and leave when I know how much the kids get out of the (ceramics) program.”

Real-world effects

When asked about the impact of budget cuts, many teachers mention large classes, which, coupled with cuts in support staff, create situations where it is difficult to engage all students. There are also logistical problems.

“You can’t fit more students in a classroom,” said Alyssa LaBrado, a former language arts teacher at Judkins Middle School in Pismo Beach. She now helps lead a new teacher-training program there.

Because of budget cuts, lunchtime activities such as softball or volleyball at the middle school have ended, the number of electives offered has shrunk, and sections of some classes, like physical education, have mushroomed.

Cuts at elementary schools have created more combination classes, which are harder to teach, and left students with fewer field trips and fewer librarians, nurses and other support staff.

Graybehl, the third-grade teacher at Grover Heights Elementary, said teachers had to ask for a donation to cover a recent field trip — a performance at the Clark Center was offered for free, but the school couldn’t pay for the bus to transport students there.

“The kids are coming in with more special needs, and to have the class size go up and the help go down … it feels like we’re always trying to find a way to shore up.”

Districts short on cash and short on training

Loss of money for professional development leads schools to seek other opportunities for growth

Local educators say investing in professional development for teachers is one of the most important things districts can do to improve student success.

“Just like any profession, you’ve got to constantly be supporting and updating and honing your craft,” said county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker.

But as districts across San Luis Obispo County slash budgets, lay off teachers and, in some cases, shorten the school year, funds for professional development are inevitably cut.

Information provided by half of the 10 public districts in the county shows that money for training opportunities and staff development days has fallen in the past few years.

For example, the San Miguel Joint Union district’s budget for professional development has dropped to $16,545 this year from nearly $68,000 five years ago; Coast Union budgeted about $34,000 this year but had close to $58,000 to spend in 2008-09.

One result of having less money: Districts are shifting the way they approach staff development. Instead of sending teachers to conferences or workshops, there’s been a trend toward more “reality-based staff development” in classrooms, Crocker said.

That’s happening in the Cayucos Elementary district, where funds for training have been cut by 61 percent to about $28,000 this year from about $72,000 five years ago.

Superintendent Jim Brescia, a Cal Poly lecturer, researched different ways to use technology to help teachers improve their practice, including time-lapse videography to show teacher movement and interaction. To demonstrate where students focus their attention, a small camera is mounted onto a student’s baseball cap during lessons.

Brescia said he now uses the technology on a regular basis for newer teachers to help them improve their practices. More experienced instructors can participate voluntarily.

Brescia also works with Cal Poly and Cuesta College, as well as local school districts, to place aspiring teachers in classrooms to learn from current teachers. The veteran teachers benefit, he said, by having to explain how they’re conducting lessons, and the students get extra attention.

Lucia Mar tries new training approach

Teacher Advancement Program provides consistent development and incentives to teachers at 7 schools, but it has its critics

On a recent Friday morning at Grover Heights Elementary, a half-dozen teachers left their classrooms in the hands of long-term substitutes and filed into a nearby classroom.

For an hour, they reviewed data, discussed strategies aimed at developing more effective teaching, and returned to their classrooms with a new lesson to teach and test over the following week.

A similar scene has played out every week this year at seven schools in the Lucia Mar Unified School District, where a new training initiative, the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), was started with grant funds.

While Lucia Mar has not been immune to deep budget cuts, administrators say the new program has allowed the South County district to provide professional development for teachers, albeit at fewer than half of its schools.

The program has recently been challenged by the Lucia Mar teachers union, which on May 31 rejected an addendum to the program for next school year.

TAP remains in place while the process continues, district Superintendent Jim Hogeboom said.

Trying TAP

Hogeboom, who was hired in 2008, learned about TAP and soon started soliciting support from the teachers union.

After the district was awarded a $7.2 million, five-year Teacher Incentive Fund grant, plans moved ahead to launch TAP at Mesa and Judkins middle schools and four elementary schools: Dorothea Lange, Fairgrove, Nipomo and Oceano. Additional money from the Stuart Foundation, a San Francisco-based independent family foundation, is funding the program at Grover Heights Elementary.

The program combines weekly “cluster” meetings with small groups of teachers to discuss teaching strategies, multiple observations tied to key elements of effective teaching, and the potential for bonus pay based on evaluations and student growth.

Each TAP school has two master teachers who lead weekly meetings, model strategies in teachers’ classrooms and observe their work; and two or more mentor teachers who help to lead the professional development efforts.

“With class sizes growing and tutoring and summer school money decreasing, we are more reliant than ever on the skills and talents of the classroom teacher,” said Andy Stenson, Lucia Mar’s assistant superintendent of curriculum. “TAP provides the support necessary for teacher growth.”

However, that’s not to say that all teachers at TAP schools embraced the idea.

“We grumbled about it in the beginning,” said Becky Edwards, a fifth-grade teacher at Fairgrove Elementary who’s been teaching about 12 years. “Being judged all the time … But after so many years, you get in a rut. It was a spark that most of us teachers needed.”

Colleen Franco, a master teacher at Fairgrove, said the first few weeks of working with teachers in their classrooms were like an awkward dance: Was she interrupting by trying to help? Did the students wonder why another adult was in their classroom?

But those concerns soon faded. Over the past year, Franco said she’s seen instruction improve, discussions about lessons become more in-depth, and connections between classrooms increase.

Master teachers at other schools said lessons have become more interactive, students are more engaged and teachers are communicating not only how to complete a lesson, but why students should know a particular skill.

“The things that cause students to be successful in the classroom — that’s what we’re focused on,” said George Griffin, a longtime teacher and master teacher at Grover Heights and Fairgrove.

Currently, there’s no plan to expand TAP to the district’s other schools because of the cost involved. The district hopes to continue the program through the end of the grant in June 2015.

Opposition to TAP

But first, the district needs to work out an agreement with the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association. Union President Lloyd Walzer said TAP has become a polarizing issue among teachers and has divided the union.

The union has declared negotiations at an impasse and will meet with a mediator June 22.

A few teachers, some of whom requested anonymity, said there’s been a groundswell of opposition to the program for several reasons: that TAP has created a two-tier system by giving some teachers bonuses while others haven’t had a salary increase in four years; that money is being spent on specific programs like TAP and a new high school, Central Coast New Tech High, while class sizes soar and programs, supplies and staff are cut at other schools; and the concern that general fund money will be used to pay for TAP.

Also, teachers at schools without TAP have scant opportunities for training, some said. Jim Gregory, a history teacher at Arroyo Grande High, hasn’t been to a training session for Advanced Placement classes in years, for example.

Hogeboom said general fund money isn’t being used to pay for the program; rather, federal funds provided specifically to aid lower-income students are being used, with each school site council’s approval, to pay for a second master teacher at each site.

“Do I not accept something that will benefit seven schools because not all schools can have it?” Hogeboom said. “We got a gift to help our neediest kids; why would we turn that away?”

Tribune staff writer Patrick Pemberton contributed to this report. Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929.

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 » | Part 2 | Part 3 » | Part 4 »

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