The School Board has tentatively scheduled for its April 21 meeting a discussion to address a $240,000 addition to the School District’s operating budget for additional teaching assistants in elementary classrooms.
The addition was intended to restore a proposed $118,000 reduction in teaching assistant hours and increase the number of hours aides are in first and second grade classrooms.
Proposed and ratified at Deliberative Session, the budget was amended and approved by the voters in the Town’s March 10 election.
“This was a historic event in that it was the first time a quorum came into the room and changed the budget,” School Board Chairman Steve Young said.
But it’s still the School Board’s prerogative as elected officials, and as indicated in their charter, whether or not to spend the added money for teaching aides.
If the $240,000 had been passed on the School District’s Warrant as a citizen’s petition, the money would have to be spent as directed by the warrant article; but the Board still has the option of returning the money to the voters rather than spending it.
“My fear is there’s a policy agenda that’s taking precedence over the common good for our kids,” said Kris Sloper, whose daughters attend North Elementary School and Moose Hill Kindergarten. “This is a small community that voted the way they did, and the idea of the Board using the money for anything else is disheartening, at best.”
“We had a public hearing, we had deliberative session and we had a vote. The Town stepped forward and said we’ll put money towards aides. It’s just very frustrating to engage in the democratic process and get the input, and then have to continue the fight,” said Donna Traynham, an educator who has been one of the most vocal advocates for teaching assistants in the elementary school classrooms. “My fear is people will disengage. We rallied people to vote in favor of the aides, but we have to go back now to say please, come out again.”
Superintendent Nate Greenberg proposed as part of the budget, before it was amended, eliminating four elementary teachers and aides who remain in first and second grades, as well as several aides in third grade classrooms.
“This is only a part of the planned staff reduction for the Londonderry School District,” Young said of the cut to teaching assistant hours. “The district has had a reduction in enrolled students from our peak in late 1990 through the early 2000s. Since that time, the Superintendent, with the School Board’s unanimous support, has ‘right sized’ the district each and every year.”
To illustrate how dramatic the enrollment drop has been, one need only look at the peak in 2000 of 2,274 elementary school students, then look at the projection for next year of 1,374 students. This is a decrease of 40 percent and a loss of 900 students, Young said.
In first and second grades, in areas where the aides were eliminated this year, class sizes are projected to range between 16.8 and 20.7 students.
But parents who advocate for additional aides in the classroom said the additional assistance isn’t about class sizes, it’s about providing enough support for all students and ensuring no first or second graders are left to work independently for long periods of time.
“Whether students are advanced or proficient or receiving special education services, all kids will need the assistance of adults,” Traynham said. “The issue gets muddled by class sizes going down.”
Traynham argues the District can pay for the teaching assistants for the elementary school classrooms now, or pay for it at the high school level when students don’t have the content background they should and aren’t able to meet the college and career readiness skills the District wants them to have.
Based on what she has seen in the budget and the plans she has heard from the Superintendent, Traynham is concerned students will, at times, be working on their own for up to 60-minute blocks.
“Some will be doing worksheets or busy work, which could be stimulating for some kids, but for some, not,” she said. “Learning gaps can become insurmountable when students disengage that early in the learning process. It’s very difficult to get them back.”
And as Common Core standards become more rigorous, Traynham said it will be even more difficult for teachers to provide a fun learning environment that meets the standards and keeps children engaged without the assistance of teaching aides.
“I think most people come here solely for the school system, and the track record the school system has is exemplary,” Sloper said. “It keeps me up at night to know we have settled here, set roots in and paid higher taxes; to think education could be affected is disheartening and makes me think, what will our next move be?”
Young said he agrees that it’s helpful to have additional adults in the classroom, and that the Superintendent outlined he intends to have additional professionals in the room.
“I had twins who were in Matthew Thornton when there were classes with 30 to 33 student. My daughter had classes in the cafeteria, and the classrooms had portable blackboards. It was so crowded – there was one teacher and no aides, but we had parents who helped out in the classroom,” he said. “Because of that, I do understand the importance of making sure children have adequate assistance.”
The detailed plan, outlined by the Superintendent and supported by his principals, results in a ratio of almost one certified staff member to 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, according to Young. This environment, where certified professionals are at a higher density per student, is for the entire day, “not just the one and two hour period that we had for dedicated aides,” Young said. “These numbers do not include any Special Education assistants that may be in the classroom.”
Lisa St. Hilaire disagrees with Greenberg’s plan, writing in a letter to School Board members that she takes issue with his opinion that support in the classroom can be met with existing personnel.
“While enrollments have in fact decreased, the average class sizes have remained fairly consistent,” she said.
Since 2001, the average class size for first and second grade has ranged from 19 to 22 students, with 20 students being typical, according to data St. Hilaire obtained from the New Hampshire Department of Education.
“While class sizes have remained relatively stable, the demands we are placing on our students are growing. I see it first-hand with my daughter who is in first grade at Matthew Thornton. Her curriculum is noticeably more advanced from what my third grader experienced just two years ago,” she wrote. “That being said, I am not against increasing the rigor of our curriculum. My concern is for our children getting the instruction they need to succeed, and I firmly believe that these assistants will play a critical role in that success.”
Sloper, Traynham and St. Hilaire said they hope to motivate those who turned out to add funding for elementary teaching assistants to the budget to attend the School Board’s April 21 meeting to again advocate for the teaching aides.
The discussion is tentatively on the agenda and the Board will provide time for public comment. To check the agenda for any changes, visit www.londonderry.org.
Those who cannot attend the meeting may submit comments to be read into the record during the discussion by emailing Steve Young at firstname.lastname@example.org.