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Banford Elementary School in Canton. Photo: Canton Central School
Banford Elementary School in Canton. Photo: Canton Central School

Elementary schools grapple with more mandates, fewer teachers

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It may be summer, but school officials are already preparing for fall. And they need to this year; North Country schools already know they have a lot of changes ahead. With state budget cuts and a new cap on property tax increases, Canton Central School is cutting staff and trimming programs. The elementary school is losing a teacher at each grade level. At the same time, it's implementing new teacher evaluations and moving toward national academic standards for students. Julie Grant reports.

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Rural schools have been hit hard over the past couple years by state budget cuts.  Joe McDonough is principal at Banford elementary school in Canton.  He says the loss in funding has quickly trickled down to his classrooms.

“One of the main areas that will impacted will be class size.  We used to have five sections of classes per grade level, we’ll be down to four sections at every grade level, kindergarten to sixth grade,” said McDonough. That means the number of students in each class will go up from around 20 to as high as 26 or 27.  McDonough says it’s going to be a noticeable difference to teachers and children. 

Janice Poole just retired from Banford after 33 years of teaching. She’s had larger classes during those years. Poole says when a teacher has so many students, she doesn’t have as much time to help children individually. She said, “Maybe not as much differentiation.  They’re going to try and meet everyone’s needs. But sometimes the lower or the higher might get just not enough. I’m worried about that."

“And less support for the classroom teacher, in terms of meeting individual student needs," said Nancy Palmateer.  She also just retired from Canton Central, after 19 years as a school librarian.  Her position won’t be filled, leaving the district with two, instead of three librarians. 

Palmateer says the librarians help the teachers prepare special projects and lessons, something she says schools need more than ever, because students today come to class at a variety of skill levels. “I think that’s a difficult thing for our teachers today because of the diversity within a classroom, that meeting the needs to the students of a class that size without the support that’s been available in the past," said Palmateer.

But Banford principal McDonough says the story of the coming year isn’t just one of fewer teachers and less support. He said, “The impact of these cuts in terms of our funding, are happening at a time when the expectations from the state have dramatically increased.”

New York is making some major shifts in education policy this year.  The state is adopting what are called Common Core Standards, to align what New York students are expected to know in English and math at different grade levels with students in other states. The Banford elementary teachers say students also will be taking more standardized tests this year, as young as the second grade.  And their scores now will be directly tied to a teacher’s evaluation.

These are also new this year.  Each district is supposed to adopt a new teacher evaluation system. McDonough says it’s a lot at once and said, “There’s a lot of work that goes into making sure your lessons are aligned to the assessments that we’re now under.  And the assessments the state is using will now be aligned to common core standards well. So it’s a big shift.” McDonough is confident that students will still get a good education at Banford.

Retired school librarian Nancy Palmateer says some the changes, like the move to the common core standards, should be good for students in the long run.  But she’s worried about what’s going to happen in the next year and said, “To adopt common core, and teacher evaluations, the two of those would be enough. To also do that with less staff, more pressures, more expectations of each teacher. I don’t really know…one of the reasons I decided to retire is that I’m not ready to face all those changes at once.”

Palmateer worries teachers will be under too much pressure being responsible for so many students to pass the standardized tests. She doesn’t think teachers mind being evaluated. However, she says when those evaluations are tied to student test scores, some teachers might be shortsighted and just  teach to the test. But Palmateer says that’s not what’s best for students. She said, “What kind of learners do we want them to be…what kind of people do we want them to be?  And I really fear it does affect the way a teacher teaches.”

Schools don’t necessarily have to implement the new teacher evaluation system. But if they don’t, their districts stand to lose funding from the state and federal government.

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