Mike Sigler thinks he got a rich education in grade school in the 1960s in New York State, including music and art. Today as a parent in Juneau he's concerned about students who aren't getting help learning how to read.
"We live in this very rich, wealthy state, in Alaska, and it doesn't compare," said Sigler, thinking of his own education. "We have a lot of good teachers trying to do their best, but they don't have the financial support."
The Juneau School District is likely to present a $37.32 million operating budget to the Juneau Assembly for next school year. The budget would spend all the available state funds and the most the city can give. It will be supplemented by about $3 million in federal grants and $500,000 in state grants, many of which go toward instruction.
Yet teachers spend their own money on supplies. Only some of the students who read poorly get extra help. Parents buy the schools microscopes and library books. Broken computers sit idle for weeks. And the high school doesn't have enough teachers to offer all students a full four years of classes.
"We were down to the bare bones - our poor library," said Kate Young, vice president of the Parent Teacher Association at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.
The parent group raises $4,000 to $5,000 a year to buy library books, more than the school's own budget of $2,500, said Principal Les Morse.
The school district had to spread over two years the purchase of about $150,000 in textbooks and other materials for the new science curriculum. The elementary grades rely on science kits with consumable materials, rather than textbooks.
"You get these wonderful kits, and you use them up and they're gone," said Glacier Valley Elementary Principal Bernie Sorenson.
Without enough money for instructional materials, the school district pays teachers to stand in front of a copy machine, Sorenson said.
"Without a doubt, it's a beg, borrow, steal, teacher-create approach" to materials, she said.
"I would love to have spelling books," said Harborview Elementary teacher Dawn Pisel-Davis, who photocopies from spelling books.
The unsystematic, patchwork way that teachers put together their materials causes inequity, they said. Pisel-Davis inherited materials and three bookcases plump with books from two retired teachers. A classroom across the hall doesn't have those resources.
A tight school budget also passes more costs to parents and teachers.
"Because of limited funding for supplies, parents have to fund things like reams of paper and pencils, things like this, which typically I would assume would be funded by the school," said Greg Busch, a parent on the Riverbend Elementary site council.
Bonita Nelson, president of the PTA at Dzantik'i Heeni, is concerned about the many financial demands on parents.
"Although for many families they can meet the demands, what happens to those children whose parents can't afford even lunches?" she said.
"Parents are continually asked for funds to meet the basic educational needs of their children," Nelson said. "These include, in middle school, participating in classroom fund-raisers so that the teachers can purchase text books, and they only bought enough for classroom use. As a parent you have 'lab fees' for most classes such as art or life skills, you have fees for extracurricular activities, plus are asked to volunteer time."
As parents spend more money on their own kids, including for nonschool sports and clubs, they have fewer resources for the PTA, which benefits all children, Nelson said.
Little of a school's allocation for supplies is discretionary once copy machine and phone costs are deducted. Morse, at Dzantik'i Heeni, said he hasn't replaced broken $35 ballasts on lights in the school commons.
The proposed budget for next school year adds about $5 a student for supplies. The supplies allocation ranges from $114 to $166 a student depending on grade level.
A tight budget also burdens school employees. Eighty-three percent of 406 Alaska teachers and support staff surveyed in 1999 said they spend their own money on supplies, with the average being $781 a year, according to NEA-Alaska, a school employees' union.
Debbie Hull, a teacher at Dzantik'i Heeni, said 27 teachers who responded to her recent survey about out-of-pocket expenses said they spent an average of $580 a year.
Besides adding money for supplies, next school year's budget also carves out some more funds to maintain computers $66,000 for the middle schools and high school. The district's technology committee said teachers are reluctant to schedule computer labs because some machines may be broken.
Competing for teachers
The proposed budget for next school year shows a reduction of some teachers, mainly due to declining enrollments, and one administrator. District officials are looking at a cut of 15 teachers, mostly in the elementary schools, where enrollments have dropped the most, said Marysia Ochej, director of administrative services.
The cuts represent a real increase in some class sizes in the elementary schools because the school district loses a lot more money from having 25 fewer students than the salary and benefits of one teacher.
"When 80 to 90 percent of your budget is people, that's really the only place you have to go," Ochej said, in looking for ways to cut spending to match expected revenues.
"When we look at the classified (support) staff, it's not realistic to cut anybody. So the only place you have to go is administration and teachers," she said.
At Harborview Elementary, the site council wants more teacher time with students who struggle with English either because it's not their first language or their parents aren't skilled in academic English.
Of 62 students identified with a language need, 22 don't get extra help, said Sigler, who is facilitator of the site council. The school's half-time teacher of English as a second language can take only some of them. The teacher for gifted and talented students works with 22 ESL students a quarter of her time.
Using the gifted and talented teacher that way caused "quite a bit of heartburn" at the school because "you're taking away from some kids and giving to other kids," Sigler said.
Meanwhile, 98 other Harborview students are identified as having reading needs, but only 27 are served by a federally funded literacy teacher. Eight others are helped by kindergarten teachers.
The school takes care of the children with the highest needs first, said Principal Bob Dye. "But we have other kids who need help and we don't have any other help to offer at this point."
At Dzantik'i Heeni, Principal Morse put together extra classes in English and math for struggling students by using part of six teachers' time. For example, an ESL teacher and a special education teacher spend one period a day working with students who take a second English or math class.
The 700-student middle school has one counselor. Morse would like to have at least one more. But if he allocated another staff position to a counselor, paid on the same salary schedule as teachers, it would cost a teaching position and increase the size of some classes at a time when students are striving to meet new benchmark standards in reading, writing and math.
The counselor "deals mostly with crisis situations, rather than preventative situations," Morse said. "There's a whole counseling curriculum I don't think we can implement because of having one counselor."
Juneau-Douglas High School doesn't have the staff to offer all students a full four years of classes, which would be 24 credits, said Principal Deb Morse. Some students don't want to take more than the required minimum of 21 credits. But others do and can't fit a desired elective into their schedule or get into filled classes.
There aren't enough electives to keep students in class. In the first semester, nearly 100 of about 1,600 JDHS students worked as office aides for a half credit toward their six-credit elective requirement. In the second semester there are 137 such students, up from 72 in the second semester last school year. That's not what the school's mission statement means by a comprehensive education, Morse said.
Meanwhile, the high school is trying to keep English and math classes at 28 or fewer students so they will get a chance to be better prepared for the new state graduation exam, Morse said.
The school needs to offer more math classes because some students fail the math portion of the test in spring of their sophomore year, after they've nearly finished the minimally required algebra and geometry courses. About 35 juniors haven't passed the math test and aren't in a math class now.
"We know we're going to have to increase our class offerings for students who ordinarily wouldn't be taking another math class," Deb Morse said. That increases the size of other classes and limits electives.
The science department also needs more sections for some lab courses because large classes in science labs are unsafe, said JDHS science department chairman Erik Lundquist.
"Teachers are torn between providing quality laboratory experiences for students as mandated by the district curriculum and keeping students safe," he said. "Teachers have reduced and eliminated labs because the risk is too great in a crowded classroom."
A national science teachers' association and a fire prevention group recommend no more than 24 students per lab supervisor. JDHS began the school year with an average of 31 students in the ninth-grade physical science classes, Lundquist said.
When JDHS has been able to hire more teachers, it has made a difference, students and teachers said. Adding a full-time music teacher this year has increased the number of music students from somewhere in the 200s to nearly 400, said teacher Ken Guiher.
"We were seeking to be more inclusive, rather than so exclusive, and provide more courses that have no prerequisites," said music teacher Susan Horst.
The school has added a music technology lab, in which computer-networked piano keyboards are used to teach general music. It also added a men's choir, a guitar class, a wind ensemble for advanced players, and a second stringed instrument class, which allows teachers to offer one as an advanced class.
"I love the idea of the more inexperienced players getting more individual attention from (a teacher)," said sophomore Hanna Walsh. "When they're in a big group they don't get singled out and they can't work on the personal areas they need to work on. And then the more advanced players get to play the more advanced music without being held back by younger players."
Because the school board can't tax to raise revenues, what is added to some program is taken away from another program. But the school district and individual schools are responsible for their choices in how to use the funds and staff they have.
The Harborview site council has asked the school district to allocate staff time for English as a second language by the number of ESL students in each school, rather than giving a blanket half-time teacher to five of the elementary schools and a full-time teacher to one larger school. The ESL staff is allocated by the central office.
Parents and teachers want small classes. But some researchers say smaller classes don't lead to higher academic achievement. If that's true, principals could use their current staff allocations to hire more counselors or reading specialists, for example.
Nationwide spending on public schools has doubled since 1970 in constant dollars, which account for inflation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The number of public school teachers in the United States has grown by half since 1970, while the number of students is about the same, leaving a much smaller student-teacher ratio today.
But scores on a national standardized test haven't improved over the past 30 years, said Kirk Johnson, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.
In his own research Johnson found that fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in classes of 20 or fewer students didn't score any better on a national reading test in 1998, on average, than kids in classes of 31 or more students.
"There's mixed evidence that suggests sometimes there's an improvement and sometimes there isn't," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. "If there is an effect, it's very small relative to a very expensive policy."
The desire for small classes may stem partly from choosing teaching methods that emphasize individual and small-group instruction.
Schools also have made some choices that place a greater variety of students in a classroom, making it more important for a teacher to individualize instruction. In those classes struggling students need extra help, and proficient students need to be challenged.
Some classes have mixed ages, so that, for example, in one classroom some fourth-graders may be at a second-grade level and some fifth-graders may be capable of seventh-grade work. That keeps a teacher hopping.
The cost of staffing for small classes is the price society pays for broader social problems, as well. Teachers and principals say some children come to school hungry, emotionally disturbed, virtually homeless or without supportive families.
"I think (small) class sizes are incredibly important to teach children individually, which is necessary," said Harborview teacher Pisel-Davis, whose class of fourth- and fifth-graders includes some advanced students and some with disabilities. "I don't have time with 25 kids to give the individual attention they need, and it breaks your heart,"
In a recent math class, Pisel-Davis moved among small groups of students, answering their questions and nudging their thoughts as they illustrated a fraction with numbers on paper and by filling in a sort of pie chart and a grid of 100 small squares, and by positioning different colored blocks.
During a writing class, Pisel-Davis sat with a boy who didn't want to read a short story. She called over another student to help and read the story aloud to both of them. She prompted them to react to the story's choice of words. Afterward, as the children wrote a fictional diary or letters, she was busy helping them find topics and answering their questions.
In her math lessons, Pisel-Davis prefers what educators call a constructivist approach, in which children cooperatively come up with the way to solve the problem.
"There's a whole lot of research that supports this style of teaching math that children truly understand why they do what they do, as opposed to rote memorization," she said.
"Teaching that way takes time and one-on-one interaction," Pisel-Davis said. "Guiding a student through discovery is a personal experience. It's not something you do one on 25. It's something you do beside them, talking in a whisper. It's something they do laughing and joking."
The Juneau School District also could get more value from its current budget if Congress gives states and school districts freedom in spending certain federal dollars. Federal funds are now disbursed for set uses. Juneau schools get about $3 million a year in federal grants for such topics as vocational education, extra reading and math teachers, teacher training and special education.
The bill would allow states - or even individual school districts with their state's approval - to take some of their federal education funds as a block grant, in exchange for being accountable for improving students' achievement. Juneau schools got about $650,000 this school year from the federal programs included in the bill.
Flexibility to combine pots of money "does give more bang for the buck," said schools Superintendent Gary Bader. "You need to have a critical mass of effort to make an impact."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juneau Empire ©2015. All Rights Reserved.