By Jon Konen
We need things to change in public education…quick!
I am a principal at a local elementary school. At the end of May 2019, our school population dropped to 385 students in grades K-6, the lowest in ten years.
By week two of this new academic year we have already hit 432, nearly a 50-student increase.
This is the highest student enrollment we have seen in over ten years.
And it also means we now have eight overloaded classrooms.
Yes, we can jam pack another 76 students into our school to be at the state maximums (508), but we already have specialists creating learning spaces in entryways and multiple storage closets used for office space.
We stay the course and do so with a smile because we love kids and believe in public education.
But there is a lot behind that smile we wished was different.
We would gladly take more students if we had the personnel…teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, and mental health support.
Unfortunately, we have done the opposite. We have continued to cut these positions over the years.
Whether you are in a business model or a public school, increasing the work load and taking away resources sounds ludicrous.
Yet this is exactly what we have had to do in our community due to lack of funding.
We are asking principals and teachers to pick up more of the pieces of everyday business in our schools.
Priorities change from being an instructional leader to managing behavior.
It definitely isn’t just principals that feel the pressure. It is our teachers, and classified workers, as well. When principals get more put on their plate, they have to ask for help. The only people we can ask are the people in our building.
Unfortunately, it trickles down.
Every day I am amazed at what we ask our teachers and staff to do. Every year there are new programs, new procedures, and obviously, new kids with new baggage we must unpack.
All of us are constantly prioritizing what is best, and what we can do that will be the most effective in the time we have with students.
All schools in our district feel these pressures, some more than others for sure.
Here are five signs that school is different this year:
1 – Functional Capacity
When you find the total number of classrooms in a building and divide that by the number of students according to the state standard that can use that facility, you will find what we call the functional capacity.
The concept of functional capacity reminds me of the sign in restaurants that states, “225 Capacity.” This sign is required for fire codes and safety.
This sign now makes me laugh each time I see one.
What about schools?
The state of Montana makes education a priority and changes the student limits on enrollment in classrooms. At the state and national levels, we need more funding in order to build schools with more classrooms.
Many school districts across America, and Montana specifically, are finding themselves in budget shortfalls where adding more classrooms is not a solution.
2 – Less Personnel
Making cuts when budgets are tight is probably the most difficult task an educator has to undertake.
We know that more personnel means more attention for students and their needs.
We simply can’t continue to cut positions as the needs increase, and then expect that we will continue to be able to meet these needs.
When we cut personnel, we cut programs.
We are now making cuts to programs that were once prominent and envious in other districts. This is no longer the case!
It is hard to see that the students in my school will have less opportunities than the students did a mere decade before…and it will get worse if we do not do something, NOW!
We as educators can continue to keep making these statements, but we need parents, businesses, and community members to step up and talk about what our students are missing out on in their education.
Make education a priority, advocate for our schools and educators, and come to the table for solutions-based conversations.
Ultimately, it is funding. We must advocate with our words and actions.
When will Montana make it a priority?
3 – Increased Job Responsibilities
This academic year marks my 21st year as an educator. It’s a career I am passionate about.
I can also say that this year, my teachers and myself have more responsibility and pressure on us to perform than ever before.
As educators, we have added in many new responsibilities that are not being taken care of anywhere else:
physical and mental health needs, clothing, food, and dealing with abuse such as trauma, anxiety, and addictions in families.
Community members may hear of Lincoln Elementary and think from our social media posts and conversations that everything is going well. It is, to a point, but we feel it.
I continue to talk about school culture and that every person from the crossing guard to the school psychologist is responsible to contribute.
I continue to use the same mantra, “Make this a school a place where you want to work and learn.”
Yet, when is it too much. When do we say, “I can’t fit anything else in my brain,” or “I can’t take on one more responsibility.”
Fund and employ an adequate amount of personnel so we can all share the load, the load of responsibilities.
We need people, especially well trained people.
The ability to cross-train employees is becoming more vital to the health of a school. Training and professional development in order to be trauma-informed should soon be a prerequisite for all education positions.
4 – Academic Needs
As we increase the expectations of what we want our students to learn by graduation, we do so at a time when it has been increasingly more difficult to cover the content.
A typical sixth grade classroom has students that can read at the high school level, as well as at the primary level.
The gap is ever increasing.
To put this in perspective, a sixth grade teacher must know standards for students from the primary level all the way to graduation.
Sixth grade has six grades below it and six grades above it…for the most part, no other grade must know all the standards like them!
We are asking our teachers to differentiate instruction or keep the same learning objective, but make it so all learners can access the objective at either lower or higher levels.
Made famous by Carol Ann Tomlinson in the 1990’s, differentiation has to be what teachers do.
Yet it seems nearly impossible to effectively meet all the needs of our students coming in.
Students coming through our doors have greater academic needs than ever before, and with no end in sight of this increase.
Legislators are even dictating and creating laws for us on screening for dyslexia.
The concept is great as we surely want to meet all students reading needs, but where is the funding, time, and personnel to meet the intent or goal of this law?
Most of us have the skills and education to differentiate instruction, but we need the resources and personnel to appropriately meet the student’s needs.
This requires funding.
5 – Socio-Emotional Needs
Trauma and anxiety have been the topic of conversation for the past five years as educators know firsthand that if we do not address basic needs (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), we will never be able to adequately reach students (Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning).
Mental health needs are skyrocketing. Many may say, “Buck up and get over it. I had to when I was in school.”
There is no “bucking up” to the traumatic events that many of our children in this community have experienced.
Anyone who says we are over diagnosing children with mental health disorders has not been in a school lately.
This affects all schools, and not just our most impoverished populations. Trauma and anxiety cross all levels of income and all races and genders of people.
Teachers, principals, and staff members can get basic training on what to do in order to support students with trauma in their classrooms.
Yet, much of this trauma requires professional mental health workers.
We must rely on other clinically trained individuals from partnering disciplines in our community.
We need even more medical and mental health professionals in our schools. We must make it easier for families and schools to access these mental health resources. We need them onsite in our schools.
Our goal is to have students in class and learning.
By putting these mental health professionals in our schools, we can increase attendance and support our teachers with instruction!
In Great Falls, I propose Benefis, Great Falls Clinic, Alluvion, or other companies partner with all schools in our district at new levels.
(This is beginning…yeah!)
They can build additions onto our schools with separate or private entrances, as well as having access to the rest of our school buildings right on campus.
Though public education is not and should not be run as a strict business model, there are aspects of a successful business structure that parallel a strong educational system.
We have to be able to hire enough people to do the jobs effectively. We have to be able to have appropriately trained individuals to meet the specific tasks and needs of those we serve.
Honestly, I believe we are doing amazing given the cuts we have made to serve our families.
The reality is our instruction could be more robust, our services are spread ever thinner, and we know our effectiveness could be enhanced if we had adequate resources.
We need the support of Montana legislators and our local community to make education a priority!