Commentary

Each win matters: Public education advocates reflect on a year of struggle to solve the class size crisis

[This is the second installment in a series of brief essays by some of the North Carolina advocates who helped lead the fight to repeal the General Assembly’s unfunded mandate to reduce class sizes in grades K-3. You can read the introduction and the first installment by clicking here.]

From Words to Action: Tamika Walker Kelly

My name is Tamika Walker Kelly, I am from Cumberland County, and I am proud to be an elementary school music teacher. I am currently in my 11th year of teaching and each year brings successes and challenges. This year, however, the challenge was not anything inside of my classroom. The challenge involved whether or not I would have a classroom at all.  You will hear many people call my fellow colleagues specialists and indeed, in fact, we are. We are the teachers who cultivate creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking skills beyond the general classroom. We turn noise into music, mistakes into masterpieces, and movement into art. As parents and guardians, we send our kids to school to have a full educational experience. That cannot happen if there are no arts, physical education or world languages in our public schools.

The class size issue presented us with a false choice: having to choose between smaller class sizes or a complete curriculum that is supposed to be guaranteed by the state. As a parent first and a teacher second, my child and all of our children, deserve to have both. We spent months advocating for a resolution and were busy contacting the General Assembly, emailing, calling and having conversations. We demanded an end to the chaos because our students deserve every resource to experience success, not only in math and reading, but also through music, drama, art, dance, and through the power of words. We often cheer the powerhouse singers, the star athletes, or the brilliant painters who showcase the greatness that comes from North Carolina. We must never let our lawmakers forget that the foundations for all of those stars was, in large part, constructed in elementary school — from the first school play, the first screeching notes on the recorder, to the first 3-point shot.

While we are relieved that HB90 brought us a partial fix to the class size crisis, we are still hurt by the positions already cut in our school district. With so much disruption and the fix coming so late, some technology positions were cut and some specials were moved to carts. A resolution could have happened last year but the reason why we got one at all was because we had parents and community members speak up and demonstrate that the issue was important to them and that they wanted to stand by these professionals, who are so often overlooked.

Our community understands the value of school specialists and grasps that each of them supports the core academics. To have these parents speak up and have community members rally around us, it really energized and touched everyone. We are aware that the activism put our legislators in an interesting predicament as the final bill was packaged with a lot of things that have nothing to do with public schools, such as pipeline funds and changes to the Board of Elections. We had hoped to have a clean bill but, sadly, this is what the state of politics in North Carolina has become and people are tired of it.

Lots of bad legislation has been pushed through at the community’s expense. We continue to fight to ensure that funding is in place and that the money will be spent where it needs to be. Our public education budget doesn’t even come close to being adequate, but it’s great to see parents and community members invested in the struggle to protect and expand it. We need to keep it up!

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