Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Juarez Elementary is like family: a regular teacher is in the family, hourly teachers, clerks and assistants are not

See update below.

I have found that when people at schools start talking about "family", they are really talking about the personal politics that seem so often to control school districts. Was this decision made in the best interest of students? Or was it made in the interest of the most powerful adults?

Budget Cuts at One Small School, Part Five
January 24, 2011
Voice of San Diego
by Emily Alpert

...Juarez [Elementary] could pay to keep one of the two teachers who were in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the tiny school, which would keep class sizes down. Or it could continue to fund hourly teachers who work in small groups with children during Power Hour, something Juarez credits for boosting kids' scores.

The school staff was split right down the middle on the two options.

"It would be wonderful to have class-size reduction," said Nicole Bell, the first grade teacher. "But we're feeling success with Power Hour and we don't want to lose all that extra support."

Everyone wanted to have both. And Principal Marceline Marques said it couldn't be done, not with the amount of money they were given. From time to time, the meeting grew so quiet that you could hear the whisper of markers as two girls sat drawing in the corner of the school library.

I've been following Juarez, a small school in Serra Mesa, as it figures out how to slash its budget. Under a new way of budgeting in San Diego Unified, schools have more power to decide what to cut as the district plans for an estimated $120 million deficit. But that power has been a painful one. Juarez had to decide how to cut an estimated 11 percent of its school site budget.

This was my fifth visit to the school. And it was decision time. Marques said she needed to decide how the school would spend its money before she met with a budget analyst on Saturday. A committee of parents and teachers met in the library at 8 a.m. Friday. But it was nearly 9 a.m. before they decided.

...Slowly they came to their conclusion. Mother Kamisha Umbarger summed it up: Juarez is like a family. The best thing the school could do is keep that family intact. She opted to pay to keep at least one of their teachers. If more money came to the school later, they could spend more on hourly help.

And that was what the group decided to do: Pay to keep at least one of its endangered teachers. But the plan still means disruption at Juarez. There will be much less time and help for Power Hour. Instead of spending $65,000 on hourly help for it, Juarez will spend less than $23,000 next year.

The office staff will get thinner. A health worker and a guidance assistant will come in just three hours a day, about half as often as they used to; the library assistant will come in even less often than that. The school clerk, now a full time job, will also come in just three hours a day.

Juarez is replacing its school assistant with a bilingual school secretary, a job that the longtime assistant Treasure Love can't fill because she isn't bilingual. Other nonteaching employees may be bumped because more senior workers displaced from other schools could grab their jobs at Juarez...

"'I don't want to lose any teachers. We lose 'em and we get someone new we don't
know,' said Kamisha Umbarger, president of the PTA."

Budget Cuts at One Small School, Part Four

January 20, 2011
by Emily Alpert

Brenna Kielty inhaled and tried to explain why her job should be saved.

She is the English-learner support teacher, a job that entails everything from
training teachers to gauging whether students are ready to be declared fluent in
English. Her voice wavered as she spoke to the crowd in the school library.

"This has been an extremely uncomfortable couple days for me," Kielty said slowly. "I
thought I'd be able to handle it. I wanted to come in here and say, 'Whatever you
decide.'" But Kielty said she decided to speak up because she does believe her
work matters to children.

What might seem strange is that Kielty didn't need to plead for her job. After days of discussion about whether her job can be trimmed back or altered, the principal said she planned to keep that job intact.

Juarez Elementary has become a pressure cooker it tries to figure out what to cut
under San Diego Unified's new, neighborhood level budgeting approach. And at a
small school where everyone knows everyone, no one can help feeling that the cuts
are personal. Even if those cuts are already off the table.

Mary Chicorel, the third grade teacher, talked to Kielty at a Wednesday meeting,
praising her work ethic, professionalism and intelligence.

"This is not about who you are as a person," Chicorel said. "It's about that chunk of
money. Struggle against that feeling that it's personal. Because it's not."

I'm following Juarez, a tiny school in Serra Mesa, as it figures out how to shrink its budget. Schools now have more power to decide what to keep and what to cut. But
the power has been a mixed blessing, leaving schools to make painful decisions
about people they know.

This is my fourth stop at the school. After school on Wednesday, a committee of
parents and teachers met to figure out how to spend the special money that Juarez
gets for disadvantaged students and English learners. Those choices, in turn, could
shape how it spends all the funds at the school.

Their decision has boiled down to a tradeoff: Is it worth spending money to
spare at least one of their teachers and clamp down on class sizes?

Or should they devote those dollars to keeping other staff intact, such as the school
clerk or the health technician or the "push in" teachers who work one-on-one with
kids on an hourly basis?

If Juarez does nothing, it stands to lose two of its 10 teachers. The two least senior teachers are in jeopardy.

"I don't want to lose any teachers. We lose 'em and we get someone new
we don't know," said Kamisha Umbarger, president of the PTA...

[Maura Larkins comment: This sounds like personal politics. Does "someone
new we don't know" means "someone we can't count on to do what we
want."? If schools properly evaluated teachers, they could replace politics
with professionalism.]


The balance of power has shifted at Juarez Elementary.

Budget Cuts at One Small School, (An Unexpected) Part Six

January 30, 2011
by Emily Alpert

Principal Marceline Marques was still recovering from a fever when she came to school Friday.

...The problem was that Juarez had not counted on one type of benefits that are afforded to all employees, part-time or full-time. When Marques sat down with a budget analyst to enter her financial plan into the computer, she discovered that because of the benefits, they had roughly $20,000 less to work with than they thought.

Mother Kirsty Holland described it like this: "The rug was pulled out from everyone's feet."

To cope, Juarez could cut the school clerk, yank more than $3,500 out of the school supplies budget, spend less on lunchtime supervision and trim back spending on the school copier to the point that if the machine broke down, the school couldn't afford to repair it. The principal didn't like the way it looked.

So teachers and parents sat down in the Juarez Elementary library again before school to reconsider the budget. Marques asked them a touchy question: Should they keep paying for an extra teacher?

Earlier, Juarez had decided to use a sizable chunk of its funding to spare at least one of the two teachers who were expected to lose their spots at the small school because class sizes are growing and enrollment is predicted to drop.

But with the new numbers, parents and teachers decided it wasn't doable to pay for a teacher. "I don't think we can afford it," mother Hope Thomley Bell said wistfully.

Juarez quickly redid its budget to stop paying for the extra classroom teacher. To try to compensate, it will bring in less expensive classroom assistants to blunt the impact of bigger classes. And it will add more hourly teachers to help with a special program in which kids break into small groups to get more attention. It will still cut the clerk, but it is ramping up the hours for its guidance assistant.

The school committee also decided to pony up more to keep the elementary assistant, Treasure Love, instead of replacing her with a secretary who cost less and could speak Spanish, as it had planned last week. Parent Kamisha Umbarger said that if the office was thinner, they should have a known face...

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