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Coping with cuts

Part II in a series exploring budget cuts' effects on schools

Posted: April 15, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: April 15, 2012 1:30 a.m.

David Stepner leads a split fourth- and fifth-grade class at Cedarcreek Elementary School in Canyon Country.

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Cedarcreek Elementary School teacher David Stepner stood before his classroom and quizzed his students on forming fractions.

Using individual “mini-whiteboards” and instructions from Stepner, the kids went through a series of problems to figure out what makes a numerator and how to come up with a denominator.

The lesson was for 15 fourth-graders.

On the other side of his classroom, 17 fifth-graders were copying down the steps to calculate the perimeter of a square or rectangle.

“Fourth-graders, are there any questions before I set you free?” Stepner asked as students took out textbooks to practice fractions.

Then: “Let’s reset our brains for fifth grade,” the teacher said.

Thirty-two students hopped out of their seats and, for the next few minutes, performed jumping jacks.

“All right, fifth-graders, here we go,” the teacher called and launched into the fifth-grade math lesson.

Stepner, 42, has taught at Cedarcreek for eight years and has watched how budget cuts reduced support for teachers while adding to their responsibilities and continuing to press for improved student achievement.

This year for Stepner, budget cuts mean he’s teaching two grade levels at the same time.

He’s also one of more than 100 Santa Clarita Valley teachers, counselors and assistant principals who have been told they may lose their jobs at the end of the school year because of state budget cuts.

Classroom cuts
The state has cut an estimated $20 billion in funding to California schools over the last five years.

Hoping to keep the cuts out of the classroom, administrators have  pushed money meant for parking-lot pavement and roof repairs into classroom funds.

They’ve turned to parent-teacher associations to keep arts and music programs off the chopping block.

They’ve reduced school maintenance and other support services.

But despite their efforts, cuts have entered the classroom.

Year after year, school districts have either eliminated or significantly reduced summer school, increased class sizes to the maximum and sliced intervention programs for students.

The number of days students attend school has been reduced.

At the William S. Hart Union High School District, the school year was cut from 180 to 175 days.

No Hart district teachers have been laid off, but in 2009, the district and teachers agreed to increase class sizes to the max: 39 students at the high school level, and 38 for junior highs.

The previous class size average was 36 and 35, respectively.

“All teachers come into the profession to make a difference; to have that moment when the light comes on with those students,” said Leslie Littman, president of the Hart District Teachers Association. “When you have 39 students in a classroom, it’s tougher and tougher.”

Some 1,100 Hart district teachers have lost five days of pay, which amounts to a 2.5 percent pay cut.

Saugus Union School District employees — Cedarcreek teachers and support staff among them — took a 2 percent pay cut due to furlough days.

Hart district teachers make about $40,000 early in their careers, with more senior teachers paid in the $50,000 range, said Littman.

“We’ve unfortunately hidden what impact the budget has had,” she said.

“We’ve hidden it, but people need to realize that it’s not sustainable. We all have to play a part in educating our future.”

Teacher layoffs
At Cedarcreek, teachers have recently picked up more intervention lessons for students.

Stepner and his fellow upper-grade teachers swap students throughout the day to provide individualized and group intervention to students who are behind — or ahead — on their lessons.

That means Stepner has to plan an additional 18 lessons a week for his students. And many afternoons, he coordinates the P.E. program for Cedarcreek students.

This year a wave of Saugus Union teachers — 74 of the district’s approximately 500 — were notified they may lose their jobs this year.

Across the state, about 20,000 teachers received preliminary layoff notices in March.

For the most part, layoffs are determined by seniority, and Stepner thought that with eight years teaching in the district, he might escape the notices.

He received the phone call that he may lose his job just days after his wife gave birth to twins.

“I wasn’t totally surprised,” Stepner said. “But I’m still in awe that so many teachers are losing their jobs.”

A total of nine Cedarcreek teachers were notified, which is about half the total teaching staff at the Canyon Country school.

‘Half the staff gone’
“The kids are the ones that are going to suffer,” Stepner said of the teacher layoffs. “There are going to be more kids in the class and (fewer) qualified teachers.”

Stepner hasn’t received a final pink slip. It could come  by May 15, when Sacramento is supposed to give school districts a better idea of finances for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

If he’s ultimately laid off, there’s the possibility that he could be rehired or brought back as a substitute teacher.

Stepner is part of Cedarcreek’s leadership team, which means he’s able to mentor other teachers and work with administrators to set goals for the school.

Cedarcreek has made a significant turnaround in recent years.

For three years, it was on the list of schools that failed to meet federal performance standards.

Cedarcreek is a Title I school, meaning it has a high number of English-language-learners and students who come from low-income homes. This creates additional academic challenges for students who need extra support before, during and after school.

Making the federal government’s “program improvement” list — those schools falling below its standards — meant providing extra help for students.

Cedarcreek worked its way off the list as state test scores rose due to a series of outreach and intervention programs.

“It would affect the kids,” Stepner said of teacher layoffs, “because some of the teachers are not going to be here next year.”

“The whole feel of the school is going to be different with half the staff gone.”

Local educators say teachers are at a tipping point because their classrooms can only take so many funding hits before long-term student learning is affected.

“Maybe you haven’t seen all the dominoes fall yet, but they are coming,” Saugus Teachers Association President Deborah Rocha said.

‘What’s best’
Stepner was hired as a Saugus Union School District teacher in 2004, after substituting for a year around Southern California school districts.

Daily, he arrives at school from Porter Ranch at 7 a.m. and usually stays until 4:30 p.m. The school day brings a 20-minute recess and 50-minute lunch, but much of that time is spent meeting with students and preparing for the next assignment.

He spends evenings and off days grading papers and planning lessons for his 32 students.

Cedarcreek Principal Jennifer Stevenson said she’s concerned about the effect of teacher layoffs in the classroom, and she tries to keep discussions about it far away from the students.

“Our students didn’t ask for this, and I think it’s just communicating that it’s out of their control,” Stevenson said. “We need to remember that our purpose is to teach the kids and to continue sending that message.”

Yet if the topic comes up, school leaders assure students that their teachers will remain in the classroom until the end of the school year and the entire staff cares for them, Stevenson said.

“We’re just trying to continue to put the message out there that we need to do what’s best for our students and we need to teach our students.”

For the rest of the series, click here

 

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