As teachers at Randleman Elementary School bid farewell to summer, readying their classrooms with supplies and materials that many bought with their own hard-earned cash, Principal Laurie Sypole cited one thing that she couldn’t find among the desks they tidied and the pay stubs they filed away.
The missing puzzle piece? The lawmakers who were at the helm of the legislative changes that are affecting teachers’ careers and their students.
“Where are they?” asked Sypole. “It bothers me that legislators are making decisions in public education while most of them have never taught, they’re not visiting, and if they are I’ve never seen them…there’s nothing that indicates that they really understand the day in, day out workings of a school house,” said Sypole, who’s been a principal at Randleman, situated in a bedroom community south of Greensboro, for five years.
It was a question on several of the minds of teachers as they reflected on a summer that ended with a teacher pay raise for the first time in years, but took away their school’s only media assistant and kept funding abysmally low for instructional supplies, class sizes high and teacher assistants scarce.
Randleman, the largest elementary school in the Randolph County school district, is a Title I school, which means it has a high poverty, at-risk population and receives some federal funding to boost its resources – although the school is experiencing cuts in their federal funds too, says Principal Sypole.
Of the students who attend Randleman, 74 percent qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. The high poverty population adds an extra challenge for educators as they must grapple with the reality that most students don’t have the support and structure they need to continue their learning at home.
“Many students live in Section 8 housing or live in mobile homes,” explained Sypole. “They don’t get the support they need at home. We do have a lot of generational poverty at our school…but also situational poverty thanks to the economy’s recent downturn.”
“You can’t blame a child who doesn’t have the push at home. We have to work through that. It’s our job to do that,” said Sypole.
It’s a job that’s increasingly difficult to accomplish when teachers have few resources to offer their students. According to the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, state funding for textbooks has been cut by 81 percent since the 2009-10 fiscal year– down from $119 million when adjusted for inflation to around $24 million for the current school year. And as for classroom materials and instructional supplies, state funding has been cut by nearly 47 percent since FY 2009-10, down from $90.7 million when adjusted for inflation to around $50 million for the current school year.
Local schools systems have been challenged with replacing these state funding cuts with other funding sources or continuing the trend of doing more with fewer resources – and Randleman has been left with no choice but to really tighten its belt.
“Paper for copiers, supplies for lessons, extra resources for students who come to school without…all of that will be affected. We just don’t have the money,” said Sypole.
Northridge Community Church usually steps in to fill in the gaps, as is increasingly common in struggling communities around North Carolina. And another church also partners with Communities in Schools of Randolph County to sponsor a backpack program for hungry families, which sends children home on Fridays with sacks filled with food for the weekend.
Teachers still want to do more to help all of their students.
“We still want to make that creative lesson plan that makes kids come alive,” said one of Randleman’s lead teachers, Stacy Holden. “So we’re going to dig into our own pockets, or beg our own family members to help us.”
How much do teachers spend out of pocket on classroom supplies each year?
“Easily a couple thousand,” said Holden. “When you have children who come in and don’t have pencils or glue sticks or are hungry, our teachers will just…take care of that.”
How teachers “take care of that” is a puzzling feat when one considers the state ranks 46th in teacher pay and teachers haven’t had a meaningful raise in six years. Prior to this school year, beginning teachers earned just $30,800 per year, far below the starting salary for teachers in most states.
But this summer, lawmakers passed what they touted as an average 7 percent raise for North Carolina’s teachers. Holden and Karen McCain, both lead teachers at Randleman with varying degrees of experience, weren’t buying that figure, however.
“I don’t know what the truth is, but I feel like they’re using my longevity to give me my raise,” said Holden, who is paid as an 11th year teacher and, she says, would have received longevity pay for the first time this year.
Lawmakers rolled longevity pay, a salary supplement offered to teachers after 10 years of service, into the new teacher pay schedule that was created to go with the teacher pay raises. Younger teachers received large pay increases, in some cases as high as nearly 20 percent. Veteran teachers received little, and some at the very high end of the salary schedule say they received no raises.
“I don’t think they [lawmakers] really understand the salary schedule,” interjected Principal Sypole. “To me, when you build in the longevity into the pay, you’re not really getting a raise.”
It also bothers Sypole, as well as McCain who is a veteran teacher with 24 years of service, that the new salary schedule is maxed out at $50,000 per year.
McCain received a miniscule pay raise, she estimates. “My 24 years of experience and expertise don’t count for much, I guess,” said McCain. “And if it weren’t for my National Board Certification…” McCain trailed off.
“She’d be on free and reduced lunch” asserted the younger Holden as they both laughed nervously.
“We all understand that beginning teachers need to be paid at a more comparable rate,” explained Principal Sypole. “But we can’t lose our experienced teachers.”
Holden explained that teachers will make things work for their students because teaching is their passion.
“But passion is not paying the bills. No matter how much they [lawmakers] take away from us, we are going to make what we have, what little bit you have left us, work. They still don’t see it takes away from family time, from grocery money… they just still see us doing everything we used to do, so they think that because they’re taking it all away they’re not hurting us,” said Holden.
“The legislature is not keen on teacher assistants,” Principal Sypole pointed out, saying that that losing that support was what her teachers found the most problematic and hurtful of all. “That became especially clear when they talked about laying off teacher assistants to pay for teacher pay raises.”
State lawmakers have whittled away at the teacher assistant budget over the past several years, drastically reducing funding for TAs and failing to include a budget provision that preserves their jobs for this year, forcing local districts to make difficult choices.
Randleman used to have 20 teacher assistants five years ago, which provided them with a TA in every classroom for grades K, 1 and 2.
Now, they have just 13 teacher assistants, and two more that are tasked with duties other than instructional support.
The scarcity of support for teachers in the classroom even contributes to safety concerns.
“So we have a new crisis video that is produced by the state and it specifically talks about the teachers and their aides getting students to safety,” explained Sypole. “Our teachers are like, ‘What aides?!'”
Sypole says that they spread their teacher assistants out the best they can, a couple of hours in one class, a couple of hours in another class. But the problem is that their classes are large.
“The demands are so hard on the teachers now, that for them just to supply instruction and have accountability for it — we don’t have the support that we need to do that.”
Randolph County’s budget this year also left them with the difficult decision to lay off all 30 of the media assistants in their district, leaving media specialists to cope on their own.
“I’m really worried for her,” Sypole said quietly as she surveyed the school’s library, where media specialist Lynn Routh sorts through boxes and computer wires to get the library up and running for the school year.
This is Routh’s 23rd year in education, and it will be her first without a media assistant.
“Our media assistant handled circulation, reshelved books, collected box tops for education which got us $1,000 last year, and troubleshooted all of our technology problems,” explained Routh, who estimates she already works roughly 60 hours per week performing the duties of a media specialist.
“I can’t really work more hours,” said Routh, who is also raising her own child and, like most, faces an uphill battle balancing work and family.
Sypole says she may have to take a TA that she was planning to use for remediation and put that person in the media center, at least for some part of the day.
“What else is there to do…students won’t be able to find books, have access to working technology?” said Sypole.
In spite of the difficult working conditions facing teachers today, Randleman hasn’t seen a lot of teacher turnover.
“Last year I lost four teachers who went to school systems that offered higher pay,” said Sypole, whose elementary school is about a 30 minute drive from Greensboro. But this year she has lost none.
“Last year was unusual and it doesn’t happen very often. The reason is because people are afraid to give up their jobs. Think about it…what else can I do? I’m a teacher, I’m an educator. What else is there to do? Work at Belk?” said Sypole.
Holden says it’s her devotion to the community she loves, and being a name instead of a number, that keeps her rooted to Randleman Elementary.
“I could go to Guilford County tomorrow,” said Holden, where the local salary supplement is higher. “But I don’t want to. This system knows its teachers – they know us by name, and they do their best to support us with what they have.”
“I’d like to see legislators come to our schools for a week. Not a day — a week, to see what really goes on here.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]
***This story has been updated to include more information about the role of local churches and Communities in Schools of Randolph County in assisting area students.