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SALINAS, Calif. - The demands have never been higher on California teachers. Central Coast News wanted to see just how bad budget cuts are affecting classrooms today, so we invited a panel of teachers, and education advocates to our studio.
Here's our panel:
Estela Mercado-Rodriguez teaches kindergarten at Frank Paul Elementary in Salinas.
Carol Rodrigues teaches special education classes in the Salinas City School District.
Jennifer Yanni works with the Monterey Peninsula Autism Assistance Foundation.
Jill Low teaches 3rd grade at George C. Marshall Elementary in Seaside.
John Farrington teaches special day classes at Gavilan View Middle School in Salinas.
Susan Midori Jones is a representative with the California Teachers Association...
Our panel addressed everything from budget cuts, to class sizes. Estela Mercado Rodriguez says, "People don't realize you have to walk in the shoes of a teacher to sort of see the challenges and demands that we're facing." In years past, she's had a teacher's assistant to help with often rowdy kindergartners, but that's now a luxury of the past. This year she started the school year with 32 students by herself, so she decided to invite a friend from Los Angeles to help with her class. "I paid her out of pocket to stay with me in my classroom for five days. If it hadn't been for her that first week, I don't know how I would have survived."
Mercado-Rodriguez said she'd even be willing to take a pay cut, if it meant her class sizes would shrink.
The push to reduce class sizes has been an ongoing battle for teachers. John Farrington says, "When you start stacking classrooms with so many kids, you get further away from the educational mission, and you get more into a babysitting service, because you cannot reach every kid."
Farrington teaches at Gavilan View Middle School in Salinas, and says budget cuts have eliminated programs, and resources, and students are being denied the right to a quality education. "The kids are suffering. They're being deprived of their resources, and the ones that they desire."
Special Education classes could be some of the hardest-hit programs. Jennifer Yanni heads the Monterey Peninsula Autism Assistance Foundation, and says when the money isn't there for special education programs, those students simply get left behind. "A child that needs maybe five days of week speech therapy, the districts can only afford one day. So what's happening to that child? They're slipping through the cracks. They're waiting, and that's time they don't get back."
To make matters worse, the state is talking about reducing the school year by as much as 20 days. Governor Jerry Brown said that move could save nearly a billion dollars per-week, but it would also give teachers less individual time with students. Jill Low teaches at George C. Marshall Elementary in Seaside and fears cutting the school year would dramatically affect achievement. "You see growth from day to day, and you see huge amounts of growth in a week. In a week…I can have them not only understanding rounding, but applying it to their addition, subtraction, multiplication and the real world."
Every year teachers struggle to prepare students for high stakes standardized tests. Good scores can lead to recognition as a Distinguished School, and can even add to real estate values. But bad results can lead to state sanctions. Jill Low says the pressure on kids is too extreme. "You're talking seven year-olds to high school students…their life comes down to 1-2 weeks of an entire school year, of intense, intense pressure."
In 2010, the state appointed a trustee to oversee the Alisal Union School District after consistent low scores; But Carol Rodrigues says the tests don't provide an accurate picture of what students are actually learning. "The fact you can bubble in tests from 2nd grade on through high school is not a life skill."
Teachers are also on edge about getting paid based on student performance. Merit pay has been tossed around for some time now, but there is concern it would push good teachers away from struggling students. Susan Midori Jones is a representative with the California Teachers Association. "When you link pay and test scores, you basically provide a disincentive for teachers to want to work with English learners or special education students in their class...because you want the highest scores, and it means higher pay."
Programs in art, music and physical education are also disappearing from curriculums because those subjects aren't tested. Estela Mercado Rodriguez says without those programs, her students don't get a complete education. "When these programs are not a priority…then we're not contributing to this well-rounded individual by any means."
John Farrington says schools are turning students into "test taking machines," and it's time lawmakers take a look at how they can change a broken system. "Somewhere along the line there needs to be some kind of movement in this country for us to start looking at the value of education…When you invest in education, you invest in the future."
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