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A zentangle. Photo: Sarah Harris.
A zentangle. Photo: Sarah Harris.

Inside school: Canton educators make do with less

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On the surface, Canton Central School is really vibrant: happy kids talking in the hallway and laughing at lunch, teachers engaged in their work. But the school is also deep in a financial crisis. Administrators aren't sure how they'll keep providing a quality education for kids when funds are running dry. All this year, NCPR will report on how the school serves its two masters: the state and its students.

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Middle school lunch. Photo: Sarah Harris. 8th grade art class. Photo: Sarah Harris.

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Middle schools sounds just like you remember it. Kids clutching mountains of books and binders bang their lockers shut and saunter off towards class.

In 8th grade art class, students are doodling– making fanciful interlocking designs called zentangles.

Evie’s sitting at a table with some friends. She has side-swept blonde hair with pink streak. She’s wearing a sweatshirt and a lot of eyeliner. Her zentangle has bold, leafy flourishes. I ask her to describe it.

"Lines? And...circles? And...swirlies?" she hazards, as her friend Emily and Brianna giggle in the background. 

For them, school is an intensely social place with "social classes," Evie says. "There’s smart kids, stupid kids," Brianna lists. "The immatures, the nerds, the gamers," Emily chimes in. 

They say their favorite part of school is hanging out with their friends.

And they don’t mind the classes, either. They tell me about a book they’re reading about the Vietnam War in English language arts: one of Evie’s favorite classes.

There’s so much happening here: classes, the fall play, sports, parent-teacher conferences. Last Friday, most teachers and students were wearing purple in honor of a first grader with epilepsy. The classrooms are bright, there’s art on the walls. It doesn’t look or feel like a place on the brink of financial crisis.

"We were looking at and have been looking at gaps between our revenues and expenditures in the $2 to $3 million range of the past several years," superintendent Bill Gregory explains, adding that the school has faced major cuts in state aid over the past few years.

So Canton Central School has cut about a quarter of its staff: 55 people. They cut business classes, creative writing, Spanish V. They cut 4th grade chorus and the middle school musical. They cut one class section at every grade level. Classrooms are getting more crowded.   

And they’ve still had to use money out of their fund balance: about a million and half dollars a year for the past few years.

But the fund balance is almost gone.

And superintendent Bill Gregory says he’s running out of options.

"We are at the point at Canton Central School where if I eliminate one more teaching position we will not be able to put together a coherent teaching schedule for next year." 

Canton’s budget problems are coming to a head just as New York state is implementing major educational reform.

Common Core standards, new teacher evaluations, and data-driven learning: Canton Central School is working to put it all in place.

Elementary school principal Joe McDonough says it’s a lot to ask of a small, struggling school.

"It makes sort of rising to the occasion for what the state’s asking us to that much more difficult. Because the expectations of schools have increased. But at the same time, what we have to work with has decreased."

And McDonough says there’s a big difference between dealing with state bureaucracy and dealing with children. 

"Sometimes it feels like it’s almost two different worlds going on at the same time. because there are political policy issues, curriculum policy issues, and looking at a whole movement with race to the top and Common Core, and then there’s just what we need to do as a building that has young children in it of just taking care of kids." 

And there are other challenges – all of which get harder to meet when there’s no money. The district needs to find a new high school principal. They have 22 new high needs students. They’re renovating the building. Evenings are taken up by committee meetings – including a group that’s studying the possibility of merging Canto and Potsdam schools. 

 But it all feels really far away as kids stream into the cafeteria at lunchtime. 5th graders Lucas and Sam are lining up for Bosco sticks, something Lucas describes as "basically something wrapped up — -it’s cheese wrapped up in bread. And baked." 

Lunch lady Jeannette Daniels has worked at the school for 25 years. She rings up children as she talks, effortlessly punching the items into her computer and chatting with kids. She knows every child's name. 

"Lunch ladies are like counselors," Jeannette says. "Sometimes the kids will come in and they’ve had a bad day and I’ll say, ok so-and-so, let’s have a a smile on your face."

The worst, she says, is when kids don’t have enough money for lunch.

"They’re only eligible, when they have a big huge debt, only to have peanut butter and jelly and I have to take the tray back, and give them peanut butter and jelly, and I hate that," she says as she helps a kid named Zach buy Pringles. 

You can tell the adults here really care about students. A lot of what kids learn in school, elementary principal Joe McDonough says, has to do with being a good person.

"Things like character education. Or things like, we’re a bucket filling school. Which is our way of talking about doing good things for people. Or even, sometimes, what’s it like to be a friend?" 

Canton Central School matters to a lot of people. It’s hard to believe that a school, a major foundation in the community, could be so vulnerable.

But Superintendent Bill Gregory says the school just can’t make-do any more.

We’ve make-done," he said.



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