By Jessie Wagoner
McPHERSON—Jennifer Becker can usually be found in her first grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School. She may be teaching a lesson to her entire class or working with students in small groups. Sometimes the focus is on math or science, reading or writing. But the main focus of every activity is helping her students feel loved, connected and able to regulate their emotions.
The last eight weeks have looked different for Becker and her students, very different. Now, instead of teaching in her classroom, she is trying her hardest to stay connected to students via technology. She, like many educators, is worried about her students and concerned about what things will look like in the fall when they return to the classroom.
“Every year we are seeing more children experiencing difficulty with social emotional regulation,” Becker said. “Now, with this long away from the classroom, we don’t know what to expect in the fall. We will see more academic gaps, more behaviors.”
Usually, Becker and other teachers in the district have additional support in the classroom, in the form of an instructional aide, if they have a large class size. However, changes recently approved by the USD 418 Board of Education has changed the class size determiner, meaning it will take a larger number of students in a classroom for an instructional aide to be assigned. This change is one of many the board has approved to reduce the district budget by $500,000.
For the coming school year, if actual class size on Sept. 10 exceeds 26 students in kindergarten through second grade or 28 students in third through fifth grade, the principal will request consideration of additional instructional aide support. While this change will help the district reduce the budget, educators and parents are left wondering if financial savings should be made at the cost of student learning.
“Having an instructional aide provides another loving adult in the classroom to support students,” Becker said. “As a teacher, the first priority is safety in the classroom. If a student is dysregulated and tipping over desks, math may not get taught that day. With an instructional aide, the teacher and aide work together to help students and deescalate situations before they begin. We can work as a team, work in small groups, taking a struggling student for a walk and continue a lesson with the larger group.”
According to data compiled by the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE), for the 2019-2020 school year, the average student-teacher ratio in Kansas was 17.9. This was the same as for the 2018-2019 school year and slightly lower than the 18.1 calculated for the 2017-2018 school year. Yet, in McPherson, teachers with a class size of 20 students don’t qualify for an instructional aide.
Shiloh Vincent, assistant superintendent, advises all instructional aides employed by the district will still be employed if they want to be. While they may not work as instructional aides, there will be a position available for them in the district if they want.
“All of our folks we have working for us will work for us in some capacity,” Vincent said. “We love those people, and we know they love kids. We appreciate the support they offer and don’t want to make a change. This change did not make anyone lose a job. Some of their positions may not be as instructional aides, but they will still be with the district.”
Reducing the budget
The changes made to the class size determiner were just one of the steps the board of education is taking to reduce the district budget by $500,000. The board also approved the following changes to reach the $500,000 reduction:
- Freeze the contribution for health insurance premiums
- Examine and reduce supplemental instructional resource expenses
- Eliminate the need for teachers to teach on their planning period
- Staff adjustments through attrition and/or reassignment
- Implement other spending efficiencies
The board approved the recommended budget changes, with one board member, Dale Patrick, voicing opposition to the changes. He expressed concerns about reducing instructional aides and the impact that would have on student learning.
Most school districts throughout Kansas are bracing for the financial fallout from COVID-19. Some districts, like Buhler, have also made tough decisions regarding budgets. Buhler recently made the decision to not fill an assistant superintendent position which was open. McPherson recently filled a similar position.
“We evaluated not filling the assistant superintendent position as well,” Shiloh Vincent, current assistant superintendent for McPherson Public School,s said. “We felt it was important enough to the work we have ahead of us in McPherson that we needed to have it filled. Similarly to those elementary school positions and counselor positions we are filling in the district. We took a hard look at it.”
Working with uncertainty
The reductions in the budget may be the tip of the iceberg for the district. The reality is the district is facing an unknown future. The full financial impact of COVID-19 is still unknown. Additionally, as the district prepares for the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, there are still unknowns about how education will be provided.
Vincent says the district is preparing in two ways. Plan A is asking principals and educators to prepare for the 2020-21 school year as if COVID-19 didn’t exist, planning a typical school year with a building full of students. Plan B is also in the works—a worst case scenario of sorts. Plan B involves evaluating and improving continuous learning if a shelter-in-place order would take effect again later in the school year.
The district is also attempting to develop transition plans to ease students and staff back into the new school year. With a lapse of this type, they know some students will struggle with returning to the routine of school.
Most of all, Vincent says the district will continue to work closely with students, parents and staff to support one another. Continuous learning has been a challenge for some families, and the district is hopeful they will see classrooms full of students again in the fall.
“We have been so proud of the students and families across our district, recognizing and extending grace throughout this time,” Vincent said. “We have heard from parents, and they think students in the classroom is the best way to do it. They aren’t real sold on continuous learning from home. We aren’t either. We would prefer to see every Bullpup in the classroom.”