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This is a what a second grade classroom looks like without a dedicated teacher assistant

Barbara Dell Carter

Second grade teacher Barbara Dell Carter

Do you remember Barbara Dell Carter?

She’s the second grade classroom teacher at John Cotten Tayloe Elementary School in “little” Washington, who I visited late last summer while she dutifully prepared her classroom for the first day of school.

As she straightened up her books (many of which she procured through her own means), Carter told me of her fears of facing yet another year without a dedicated teacher assistant (TA), not to mention how to cope with a state budget that dealt significant cuts to other areas of the classroom.

She is worried. Not the back-to-school jitters kind of worried; she has deep-seated concerns about the challenges she will face this year as educators grapple with a public school budget that spends $500 million less than what was spent in 2008.

Five years ago, the teacher assistant who is now sitting in Carter’s classroom preparing instructional materials would typically spend the entire day, every day, with Carter during the school year. That teacher assistant would help her manage 21 or 22 seven-year-old children who need to go to the bathroom, get fed, learn a lesson at a slightly slower or faster pace, or go to the nurse’s office, among many other possible situations, all throughout the day.

Now, that teacher assistant will be shared among four or five other classrooms. So maybe Carter will have a colleague help her manage her classroom for just an hour each day.

Maybe.

Working in rural Beaufort County, Carter also helped me understand that she must educate a student population that had an awful lot of needs.

“Often when children come to my classroom, they are hungry. They need to be fed before they can think about reading comprehension,” she explains. “And I don’t know how many children come to school who are sleeping three or four to a bed. And maybe one sibling wets the bed. So they come to school hungry, tired, and wearing yesterday’s clothes, sometimes soaked with urine.”

“As teachers, we feel that we need to fix all our students’ problems so they can get down to learning. Their intrinsic needs must be met first,” said Carter.

Every teacher, Carter speculates, at John Cotten Tayloe has bought clothing for students at one time or another, or taken a child to get cleaned up and fed so they can learn. They dig into their own pockets and rely on the support of the PTA and the church to help them.

In this context, Carter wondered how she would ensure her students would accomplish the learning gains they need to make with an hour or less each day of extra help.

A classroom of 21 students is not terribly large, explained Carter, but without support it will be difficult. “And now that they have lifted the cap on classroom sizes, what will we do? We can keep adding desks, but that’s not good for our students,” said Carter.

Many of Carter’s students have Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. These are state-mandated learning plans that are intended for children with disabilities or special learning needs. Teachers must provide specialized instruction and assessments for children with IEPs to help them achieve specified learning goals.

When you have increased class sizes and fewer educators in the classroom, it will be much more difficult to identify early on which children have special needs and need special accommodations.

“When the General Assembly looks at education, they look at numbers, not individual children. But there are so many other issues to consider,” said Carter.

That was last year, when the budget slashed funding for 3,800 TAs and 5,200 teaching jobs across the state.

And now, lawmakers are fighting over a budget that may give teachers a much-needed and deserved pay raise, but possibly at the expense of even more teacher assistants.

The Senate has proposed eliminating the jobs of half of the state’s teacher assistants, or those who are second and third grade TAs. But the reality is that many school districts, especially the poorer ones, have been operating without those TAs for years.

Teacher assistant positions, however, have not been filled by Carson, [John Cotten Tayloe’s principal] as people have retired or moved on.

“We had to make a decision three years ago – when a teacher assistant left or retired, we would just have to adjust without that position. And over the past three years, we’ve lost ten teacher assistants, either through attrition or transfer. No one has lost their job—some folks we transferred to another local elementary school,” said Carson.

John Cotten Tayloe has 29 homerooms, and five or so years ago, each of those homerooms would have had a teacher assistant.

But the state has been systematically pulling back funding for teacher assistants over the past several years. For this 2013-15 biennial budget, $120 million has been cut out of the state appropriation for teacher assistants, which amounts to a loss of nearly 4,000 teacher assistant positions statewide.

The cumulative effect these cuts have had on the classroom is clear. This year the school will have just eight teacher assistants to be shared by 29 classrooms.

This comes at a particularly difficult time, explained Carson, because educational trends are heading in a direction that would actually demand more personnel in the classroom.

So if the Senate wins out and TA funding is dramatically reduced, John Cotten Tayloe Elementary could end up with few to no TAs in their classrooms.

They’d also potentially have to deal with even more classroom cuts. The House budget slashes $293 million in public school funding from the budget adopted in 2013 and shifts lottery revenues to make up some of the difference, but not all of it. The Senate wants to cut $436 million in education funding.

Barbara Dell Carter had some parting words for me as I left her classroom last year.

“I am a taxpayer. I know no one likes to see their taxes increase, but if that money goes toward producing a generation of more productive citizens, then I don’t know what better investment there is that I can make.”

3 Comments

  1. Bert

    July 23, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    In Cabarrus County 2nd and 3rd grade assistants were cut years ago. I believe more to do with our local administrators using the funds for other things rather than TAs. Most first grade classrooms in our county have been without a TA for the past few years as well. Many schools had teachers in first grade share an assistants over the past few years. Last year most kindergarten teachers were sharing TAs. I think it is such a joke to say that they plan to cut assistants from 2nd and 3rd and leave them only in K-2, because most counties haven’t had them in 2nd and 3rd grades for quite some time. I had 24 students in my 1st grade classroom last year and I had to rely on parent volunteers to help out in the classroom. Most of my parents had to work so I only had 2 parents that could come in periodically to help out with reading. 8 of my students came into my classroom with an IEP in place. I referred 6 other students for IEPs or behavior modification plans. About 80% of the students in my classroom were free lunch students. I had to purchase many of the supplies my students needed for school. Parental support was minimal for many of my students. Getting homework completed and returned was like pulling teeth this year. I know counties can use the funding for more teachers to lower class sizes rather than for assistants but when we have 24 first graders in a classroom and no TA something is wrong. Where is the money going? Mismanagement at the county level is a huge problem in my opinion, as well as, the current legislation taking from the needy and poor to give to the rich. I believe the state, as well as, each county should be scrutinized to see exactly where every penny is going. We should be doing more to properly educate our students in order to ensure their success in school and the future of us all!!!!!

  2. Melissa

    July 25, 2014 at 11:10 pm

    Socrates went about questioning people who were held to be ‘wise’ in their own estimation and that of others. He found, to his dismay, “that the men whose reputation for wisdom stood highest were nearly the most lacking in it, while others who were looked down on as common people were much more intelligent” (Plato, Apology, 22).

    Perhaps it’s time for the politicians to listen to the lowly teachers. Obviously their methods are not working. Bring back Socratic method. This can’t be done with class sizes running over 1/30 teacher to student ratio. Do the math you imbeciles. The climate of schools has change greatly. Look at the school demographics. They require more funding than ever. Technology is far more expensive than copy paper. Competition globally begins by competing within the community. A redistribution of wealth should have occurred a long time ago. From all the egregious and liberal spending on nonsense to the proper funding and allocation of schools.

  3. Carolyn Williams

    July 28, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    What will happen to the immigrant’s child education when they enter the classroom?