The small group of teachers who showed up recently to a Schenectady school budget work session think it’s going to take a lot more support to lift student performance and they aren’t afraid to try new things.
The teachers latched on to ideas to boost direct support for students on the edge of falling behind in class, while dismissing proposals that increased the number of eyes monitoring students but not serving students directly.
They supported a plan to outfit schools with washers and dryers, so students and their families could clean clothes free. They gravitated to ideas that focused on the district’s youngest students or expanded learning time after school or over the summer.
“I would much rather they work with kids,” Heather Martin, a kindergarten and first-grade special education teacher at Howe Elementary, said of potential new hires. “I would rather have more teachers and reduce the class size generally.”
While just four teachers showed up to the work session – billed as a chance for elementary school teachers to share input into the budget proposal – they diligently made their way through a list of program proposals laid out by district leaders as areas that could be funded in the budget currently under development.
How much can be funded remains an open question. Superintendent Larry Spring said the whole list could be funded – along with tax cuts – if the state funded schools at the level spelled out in a state funding formula, around $50 million more for Schenectady. But even the proposals most beneficial to Schenectady schools don’t go that far.
For their part, the teachers largely supported a plan to mirror the “continuum” of services for special education for about 20 percent of the district’s general education students. They also favored expanding specialized supports like speech pathologists and social workers.
“We have two [social workers] here,” said Michaela Miranda, a third-grade teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary. “They are essentially our crisis team; they are running around like crazy.”
They liked the idea of expanding teacher training around literacy and sensitivity around students experiencing trauma.
“Our students come to us not having those basic literacy foundations,” Miranda said.
The teachers were excited about a proposal to create a “crisis response team,” which would be staffed with two social workers and a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The “mobile” team would serve students in intense mental health crisis throughout the district. But the district has had a difficult time filling a psychiatric nurse position budgeted last year. Spring said the district didn’t receive applications for the position but would make it a priority of a new recruitment specialist – also tasked with improving district staff diversity.
And while they agreed with the importance of engaging families and the communities more with the schools, they thought in light of the recent redistricting it was too early for a wholesale expansion of the community school model that establishes explicit liaison positions that work at the school and keep close touch with student families. The teachers said those parent leaders will emerge as the schools started to grow their own unique cultures – something there has not been enough time for, they said.
“A lot of us are brand new schools and really getting to know parents and give time to build a school culture,” Miranda said.
But, at the very least, the teachers got a valuable lesson in the hard work of budget prioritizing. After a first round of ranking the different proposals, the teachers had to cut back on their list of top priority ideas.
Expanded transportation for after-school programs, a plan to support students to set them on tracks that would lead them back to Schenectady as teachers, and an idea that paired tutoring with access to laundry on the weekend all lost out in a revision of priorities.
“We like learn and wash but it’s really just the washing that is the most important,” Martin said.