Elementary Schools Grapple With Fewer Resources



Rob Varner

To avoid having 30-plus students in fourth-grade classrooms at Payson Elementary School this year, Principal Will Dunman had to disband two popular discipline programs that focused on teaching kids appropriate behaviors.

The programs, Taking Responsibility Classroom (TRC) and Student Teacher Alternative Resource Settings (STARS), provided teachers a place to put disruptive students where they could sit and ponder their transgression before teachers would work with them on how to avoid those behaviors in the future.

A student in TRC usually stayed no more than 10 minutes, while more seriously disruptive students would study in STARS all day for a semester. STARS was also open to students at other schools. The program proved so effective that at least one student from another school enrolled at PES after taking it.

“We miss it, but we needed to make some changes affecting our class sizes,” said Dunman.

The school’s office staff now works with problematic students.

After two fourth-grade teachers retired, and Dunman decided it was better to have smaller class sizes than keep the behavioral programs going. Now, fourth-grade enjoys an average class size of slightly fewer than 20 students.

In other grades at PES, average class size ranges from 19 in kindergarten at the low end to about 24 in first-grade and second-grade at the high end. However, school officials say class sizes would undoubtedly increase if March’s override election fails.

In the aftermath of last year’s cutbacks, schools in the Payson Unified School District are shuffling teachers and employing creativity to maintain programs. Inevitably, however, some changes are felt more than others.

The district eliminated 11 positions while avoiding layoffs last year after the state cut its operations budget by 7 percent, to $14.6 million. Last year, an influx of federal stimulus funds helped save jobs, but that lifeboat has deflated.

In March, voters will decide whether to re-instate a $1.2 million override that is now in the process of phasing out over three years. In 2008, voters defeated the same measure.

If the override fails, the district faces an estimated $1.7 million budget deficit. Officials have said another 16 teaching positions could be eliminated, along with an additional 10 non-classroom positions.

Even if the override passes, the district must still grapple with an estimated $1 million shortfall.

Schools are scrambling to keep core programs without compromising education. For instance, three elementary schools now share two physical education teachers after losing one of the positions.

At Julia Randall Elementary School, principal Rob Varner said steady enrollment has saved his school from drastic changes.

One shuffle involved moving the certified librarian, who also helped with the school’s gifted program, into teaching third-grade. Varner said the person now running the library does a great job, but less training makes a difference.

“People have been taking on more responsibility,” he said. Stimulus money created one new position at each elementary school to help implement a new early intervention program throughout the district.

At JRE, Varner moved a reading specialist into the stimulus-funded position, and moved a third-grade teacher into the vacated reading position. The third-grade teacher also had a gifted endorsement, so she helps with the gifted children that the old librarian, now a third-grade teacher, no longer works with.

Class sizes at JRE now range from 22 to 27. However, Varner says his unflappability is becoming more useful as he contemplates various scenarios should the override fail.

“I can’t see where I can absorb a loss of a teacher to be honest with you, and still maintain the programs I want to maintain,” he said.

Frontier Elementary School moved a third-grade teacher into a librarian position. The school also lost a first-grade teacher after school started because the need was greater at another school.

“That was huge,” said Principal Paula Patterson. Still, first-grade class sizes are around 25.

Patterson said Frontier has small classrooms that make it difficult to have large classes. “The children will be stacked on top of each other, and there will be no room to move around,” she wrote in an e-mail. “This will be a safety issue.”


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