“When is enough enough?”
That’s the question elementary teachers brought to the Ramona Teachers Association (RTA) Executive Board meeting last Thursday, and RTA President Donna Braye-Romero relayed their concerns to the Ramona school board.
“The teachers are feeling really under pressure and really overwhelmed by the expectations, by the number of children that are in the classes, by the pressure to try to teach two grade levels,” Braye-Romero told school trustees at their meeting Oct. 15. “This is the first time I’ve had to come and give a negative report or an unsettling report to the board, and so I just wanted to share with you that this stress is really, really out there, and I don’t know what the answer is.”
Concerns came from representatives of four of the district’s six elementary schools, particularly from those teaching combination classes in grades four through six, she said.
Ramona Community School, which uses the Montessori approach to education, has always had combination classes, where students in more than one grade share a classroom and teacher. That is not the case in the district’s other elementary schools.
“We would love to have no combination classes and 20 students per class,” Superintendent Dr. Robert Graeff said after the meeting. “Declining enrollment has really hit hard at the elementary schools, and we do not have nearly as much flexibility as we once had.”
A review of the number of combination classes in the elementary schools shows five at Hanson Elementary, three at Ramona Elementary, four at James Dukes, five at Mount Woodson, four at Barnett and nine at Ramona Community, which has always had combo classes, said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joe Annicharico.
Kindergarten through grade three classes have 21 students or less, while the average combination class size in grades four through six is 31, said Annicharico.
“One has 34,” he said. “The rest are 28 to 31.”
Based on the number of students in each school, those combination classes could be grades four and five or grades five and six.
According to district statistics, the number of combination classes this year is higher, but not significantly higher, than last year, said Annicharico.
The district provides professional development and preparation days for teachers of combinations classes, said Annicharico. Team teaching is one approach teachers of combination classes use, he noted.
“We give them as much support as we can,” he said.
“I have no doubt that the level of stress on teachers in any school district this year is greater than ever before,” said Graeff. “The targets for student achievement continues to increase by the No Child Left Behind standards, and the budget support is lower than previously, and in Ramona class sizes are inching up across the board.”
“The state and the federal government continue to add more and more to the teachers’ plate, and they take nothing off,” said Braye-Romero. “Teachers are at a breaking point, not just in Ramona, but in the state of California.”
While the teachers at last week’s teachers union meeting did not offer suggestions, Braye-Romero said they may present some alternatives or suggestions at future meetings.
The district is dealing with the situation as best it can, she said, explaining that “you can’t afford to fill a class with 15.”
Where there may have been enough students in past years for three classes at one grade level, fewer students have left, for example, enough students for two classes with too few remaining at that grade level to warrant a third class. Those students have been combined with students in another grade.
“Kids don’t come in nice neat packages,” said Annicharico.
Exacerbating the situation is the trend to “push in” special needs students who in the past have spent part of the day in other classrooms.
“The current (education) model is an integrated approach,” Annicharico said about special needs students.
Resource teachers in the past would take students needing extra help out of the classroom for small group instruction, said Braye-Romero.
“In several of the schools, they’re doing what’s called push in,” she said. “The students are in the regular classroom all day...They send in an instructional assistant or maybe a special ed teacher.”
So, in addition to teaching two different grades in the same classroom, the teacher has paraprofessionals or resource specialists instructing special needs students, added Braye-Romero. “That is another point that’s causing a lot of stress, when the special ed students are being pushed in.”
Some of the teachers have asked that a California Teachers Association representative be at the next union meeting to talk to them about their personal rights, said Braye-Romero.
“I’ve never had the teachers in Ramona ask for CTA to come in and put on a presentation,” she said.
Also at the school board meeting, Assistant Superintendent David Ostermann presented the annual enrollment report based on students in the district on Wednesday, Oct. 7. The state requires each district in California to report enrollment on the first Wednesday in October. Popularly called CBEDS, it is the California Basic Education Data System report.
“Why is this important?” Ostermann asked. “Enrollment ties to average daily attendance, or ADA. Average daily attendance translates into our revenue limit dollars. So enrollment is very important in the world of school finances.”
Ramona’s CBEDS report for the 2009-10 school year shows more declining enrollment. Enrollment in 2007-08 was 6,778; in 2008-09, it was 6,602, or 176 fewer students; and for 2009-10, the district had a decline of another 216 students for a total of 6,386 students.
“Big swings in our elementary schools,” said Ostermann.
Ramona Elementary has 59 fewer students than last year, Mount Woodson has 54 fewer, and Barnett shows 22 fewer students.
Hanson Elementary’s enrollment went up 34 students, and Ramona Community has 26 additional students. James Dukes has seven fewer students.
Some of the Mount Woodson families moved to San Diego Country Estates, Ostermann noted. When students leave Mount Woodson school, Principal Theresa Grace said, school officials ask where the students are going. Her understanding is that home foreclosures may have contributed to some Mount Woodson families moving to Country Estates.
Each student represents about $6,000 in ADA from the state. State and federal money for special programs and from the lottery adds about another $2,000 per student to district, bringing Ostermann’s estimate of what the district will receive per student this year to $8,118. Last year, the district received $8,995 per student.