The School Board considered at its April 21 meeting spending $240,000 voters at the School District’s Deliberative Session added to the operating budget to increase primary instructional assistant hours.
The funding would restore a proposed $118,000 reduction in teaching assistant hours and increase the number of hours aides are in first and second grade classrooms to three hours per day, an increase of approximately 1.5 hours.
In his proposed budget, before it was amended, Superintendent Nate Greenberg recommended eliminating four elementary teachers and aides who remain in first and second grades, as well as several aides in third grade classrooms, to “right-size” staff as the District faces the challenges of declining enrollment.
“A little over 80 percent of the budget is personnel. In this case, what we did was take a look at the total number of students, class size, the number of certified personnel, the instructional model we wanted to use, utilization of technology, maintaining quality of service and utilization of special education services,” he said.
Greenberg said he and administrators laid out a plan that included restructuring staff and using a variety of resources to support student learning.
The detailed plan, outlined by the Superintendent and supported by his principals, results in a ratio of almost one certified staff member to every 10 students in the classroom during some portions of the day. This is accomplished by the use of reading, educational support and special education teachers, including the disciplines of math and reading, Chairman Steve Young said.
“This environment, where certified professionals are at a higher density per student, is for the entire day, not just for the one- and two-hour period that we had for dedicated aides,” Young said. “Please note that these numbers do not include any Special Education assistants that may be in the classroom.
Greenberg told the Board and parents at last week’s meeting that the District has looked at the instructional model, refined response to intervention, improved its ability to identify at-risk students and maintained a good student to teacher ratio.
“All this led to the recommendation to reduce instructional assistants at first and second grade, and some at third grade,” he said, noting the District has looked at the sustainability both short- and long-term, and has considered potential financial issues in the future. “This is the best way to maintain the quality of education and sustain it long-term.”
Greenberg said the new model is being piloted in classes at South Elementary School and recommended a follow-up meeting to discuss the new structure.
Concerned parents packed the meeting to express their support for increasing instructional assistant hours, most arguing the additional adult support in first and second grade classrooms is vital to ensuring all children’s needs are met and the quality of education children receive in Londonderry is maintained.
Many parents expressed concern that although enrollment has declined, class sizes have remained stable and a variety of new challenges teachers must meet makes teaching assistants’ support vital to ensuring children aren’t sitting idle or slipping through the cracks.
“Individual classroom sizes are either staying stagnant or on the rise due to retiring teachers and their positions not being backfilled. This, combined with the increased rigor of the Common Core Curriculum and the diverse array of learning styles and capabilities in each classroom, unequivocally sets up students and teachers with an unfair disadvantage,” said Kris Sloper, who has a daughter in third grade and another daughter who is to enter first grade next year. “Here’s the good news: thankfully, our taxpayers are willing to provide our students with the funding necessary to provide them with the best resources available. Why this wouldn’t pass is beyond me.”
About a dozen current and former students also spoke in favor of maintaining teaching assistant hours.
Former student Hannah Johnson, who is now pursuing a career in education, wrote a letter to the Board saying she would be worried about handling a large classroom full of kids without a teaching assistant.
“Looking back to my years in the Londonderry School District, I have many fond memories of assistant teachers in my classes,” she wrote. “I remember getting a lot of one-on-one attention from them, and I have no doubt I flourished because of that attention.”
Specifically, Johnson said she remembers her third grade teacher giving her special attention in writing, which helped her to excel and played a role in her desire to become a teacher herself.
“I would never have had that opportunity if the teaching assistants wouldn’t have been there to work with the other students in the classroom,” she said.
Luc Lafond, a sixth grader, told the Board he started kindergarten in Manchester, but he was so bored in school, even after moving up to first grade, that he became a disruption.
Lafond’s parents moved to Londonderry so he would be challenged and have access to the District’s gifted program.
“Although I had completed first grade in Manchester, everyone agreed I should do it again in Londonderry. Mrs. Roberts, the instructional assistant in my class, was really helpful with keeping me on track when I completed my school work early and got bored,” said. “It was even more crucial in second grade because Mrs. Dolphin had a back injury and couldn’t run around and help all the students. Therefore, the instructional assistant, Mrs. Trainer, hustled around the room, gave me extra assignments to do, and sometimes had me run errands when my work was done. Thanks to my first and second grade assistants, I didn’t get in much trouble and I didn’t hate school.”
Now an honor roll student in Advanced Reading and AP Math, Lafond said he can’t help wonder how things would have turned out for him had there not been instructional assistants in his first and second grade classrooms to keep his from getting bored and into trouble.
“Do you think I would have liked school? Do you think I would’ve done as well? I don’t think so,” he said. “What happens in the first couple grades can affect somebody’s whole academic career.”
In addition to the concern over ensuring all students receive the one-on-one attention they need to establish a strong foundation at the elementary level, parents expressed confusion over why the Board would vote against spending the additional funding for instructional assistants, or return the money to the taxpayers.
“My feeling is once it has been voted on, we have a moral obligation to honor that vote,” said Dan Tamburello. “We have a process, we went through that process, and (the voters) said this is what they want to do. And it’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. But I think pound for pound you get more than your dollar for that.”
Another parent noted the amount of money proposed for the teaching assistants is less than 1 percent of the District’s $67 million operating budget.
Sloper presented the Board with a formal petition, signed by 480 Londonderry residents, in favor of spending the $240,000 added to the budget for the teaching assistants as intended.
“While some may argue that not all of the 2,285 voters agree with keeping our instructional assistants, I think it’s fair to say that between the clear outcome of the Deliberative Session, the March 10 vote, resident emails, letters, phone calls, articles (in the newspaper) and our petition, the majority of this community wants the approved funding allocated to keeping assistants in our primary classrooms,” she said. “While we greatly respect your positions and experience, we request that you value ours, as well. The folks supporting this plan are well educated, doctors, educators, engineers and local business owners, parents of children that will be directly affected by this decision, as well as parents whose children have already had the benefit of these resources and want the same for others.
Sloper noted Young described the quorum changing the budget at Deliberative session as “a historic event.”
“A historic event. What a strong and clear message this community has sent. What is that message?” she asked. “We, the people of Londonderry, are expecting you, who represent us, to adhere to our collective wish of keeping instructional assistants in our primary classrooms and increase their time to three hours per day. The residents have approved the tax increase to sustain the funding necessary to attain this goal.”?
The School Board made no decision and tentatively plans to discuss the matter further at its next meeting.