Education funding has seen more subtraction than addition throughout the past months -- fewer dollars, fewer teachers and more number crunching. Now, as classes begin across Oklahoma, some local teachers are worried the students will be the ones to suffer from the state's math game.
"All of our decisions are being made on money," said Cindi Hemm, principal of Eugene Field Elementary School. "Nothing is being made on what is good for our children. Our legislators continue to say they value children, but they cut 11 percent of our budget."
With the state cutting its education funding by almost $200 million, some teachers in the Tulsa area will not have a job in the classroom. These same classrooms will soon be overloaded with students, said Lynn Stockly, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association.
And teachers are not the only ones losing out this year, Hemm said. Eugene Field Elementary, which is a continuous learning public school that started class on Aug. 5, has already seen classes that regularly had 20 students grow to 27 or 28 students per classroom.
Even after a private donation restored the jobs of two full-time and one part-time teachers whose contracts were not going to be renewed, the school has been keeping its doors open Saturdays and Sundays for teachers to come in and get caught up on work, so they can stay on schedule.
With the school sitting in a high-poverty, high-crime area in west Tulsa, a kindergarten class of 28 children, for instance can pose special challenges.
"Teaching is hard, regardless," Hemm said. "But if you put 30 kids of college-educated parents in front of you, it's a whole different ballgame than if you put 30 kids whose parents are incarcerated, or their parents are on drugs or they've just been in a gang shooting and their uncle died, like one of our families last week.
"My 4- and 5-year-olds don't know a color, don't know a letter. They've never had a book read to them, and they're sleeping in 24/7 noise. They've never had a moment in their life that's quiet."
Hemm has blocked all transfers into the school, but now that students have been attending classes for a few weeks, she said she is realizing more changes will need to be made.
"I'm doing the numbers game," she said.
Hemm will soon split classes and combine groups that are on the same level, since classes at some grade levels are more overpopulated than others. For example, the large kindergarten classes will be cut by reading level. Those who can read will be placed in a class with first graders who are struggling with reading. Although these splits will make teaching for standardized testing difficult, Hemm said she expects to see this adopted throughout many of Tulsa's schools as classes fill with students.
And next year will just get worse if more federal aid does not come in to help, she said. Class sizes might be pushed to 35-40 students per teacher.
Creative Problem Solving
Administrators of Union Public Schools expect higher student-to-teacher ratios as students continue to enroll after the first day of class on Aug. 20. With enrollment increasing for the past several years, Kathy Dodd, an assistant superintendent for the district, said she will most likely see maxed out classrooms.
"Because we've already budgeted to the last penny and school hasn't started yet, I'm concerned about enrollment increasing in certain areas and us not having the flexibility we've had in the past to hire extra staff," she said. "This year more than ever, we expect to be moving staff around after the school year starts."
Although 93 positions were cut, including 53 teaching positions, the Union system has been able to save more teaching positions by asking administration and staff to wear multiple hats, Dodd said.
"Now, they have absorbed one of those positions that was eliminated," she said. "Across the board, we have people taking up the slack by doing more."
To ensure that the increase in students per classroom does not result in a decrease in quality education, students at Union schools will be heading to class 25 minutes later on Fridays.
"Late start Fridays will probably be the bright spot this year, because we will be starting later to give teachers the opportunity across the district to collaborate with each other," said Kim Wilson, principal of Jefferson Elementary School. "If there's ever been a year where teachers need to be collaborating together and working together to ensure success, it's this year. We're not thrilled to have our budgets cut, but we are thrilled to have the gift of time."
A week before the first day of class, Wilson said her enrollment numbers were already exceeding those from last year. With three of the grades at the elementary school being cut from four to three sections of students and her pre-kindergarten class being cut from three to two, she said she knows changes will have to be made even after school begins.
Some changes have already been made. After each school in the district had its budget cut by 10 percent, Wilson said she has cut the funding for new materials and programs for the school's counselor and cut a night custodian position. The counselor will borrow materials from other schools if necessary.
"We're going to meet the needs of the kids, it just may not look the way it does traditionally," she said.
And with a reduced number of librarians at each school, Dodd said she is counting on parents to step in and help shelve and check out books.
But in spite of all the budget cuts, Gretchen Haas-Bethell, Union Public Schools executive director of communications, said Chinese II is the only class that had to be cancelled. The district is currently looking into teaching the course through an online curriculum delivery program.
"Art and music often are the first to go around the country," Haas-Bethell said. "Fortunately, those have been a priority and continue to remain a priority."
With core curriculum remaining Tulsa Public Schools' focus, schools will be seeing special classes decrease in hours, said Tami Marler, the district's director of public information and marketing.
"Principals and the district have been innovative in coming up with teacher sharing situations between schools," she said. "Where a school might have had a full-time art teacher in the past, this year an art teacher may travel between two schools that share the cost. The same is true for physical education."
Other non-essential classes are ending up on the chopping block within the Tulsa Public Schools district, Stockly said. Speech and debate classes have recently been eliminated from many schools.
Even with all the cuts and number-crunching for this school year, school administration and staff throughout the city echo the same concern about the future.
"We're concerned about stimulus funds ending next year," Haas-Bethell said. "We're hoping we see something from this latest legislation in Congress, because next year is going to be every bit as bad, if not worse."
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