Local school officials are still hoping to get some state funding for the teacher assistant positions used throughout the county, despite fears the final General Assembly budget will eliminate most, if not all, such positions.
State legislators recently took a step toward finalizing the long-overdue 2015-16 budget when House and Senate members agreed to a $21.74 billion budget target.
The target still leaves school systems up in the air, however, regarding funding for teacher assistants and driver’s education programs.
Locally, both Surry County and Mount Airy have suspended the driver’s ed programs while waiting to learn whether the state will fund them, discontinue funding altogether, or move the programs to community colleges.
The Senate’s budget proposal has been more severe with educational cuts, eliminating more than 1,700 teacher assistant positions across the state in the coming year and more than 5,000 the following year while adding about 3,000 full time teachers across the state. Many school leaders across the state have said the full time teaching additions would not be practical because there are no more available classrooms for them, while teacher assistants can work in existing classrooms with regular, full time teachers.
The House of Representatives’ plan would cut fewer assistants.
Jennifer Scott, executive director of elementary education for Surry County Schools, described them as teaching assistants not teacher assistants, “They do not act as clerical staff for teachers.”
Teacher assistants help teachers execute their lesson plans. Teachers meet with their assistants and discuss their plan, and ways to help each student understand and learn the lesson, explained Scott.
A majority of teacher assistants are in the elementary school grade levels. “When you have students coming in on all different levels, it’s hard for one person to meet the needs of all the children,” said Scott.
Scott said some children come into kindergarten from a structured daycare or pre-k program knowing their ABC’s. Some know how to read and some don’t even know how to properly hold a book and read a sentence from left to right. “That’s where teaching assistants really come into play and help the teacher and we are able to individually meet the needs of every student.”
Olivia Byerly, principal at B.H. Tharrington said, “Until you get in (the classroom) to see what they do you just don’t know.” Byerly said the teacher assistants allowed the school to customize and personalize education.
Both Scott and Byerly elaborated on another roll they deemed huge, ensuring the safety of the children.
“TA’s are there when teachers cannot be,” said Scott, giving the example of drop-off and pick-up lines. “When teachers have to be in their classrooms in the morning preparing for the day, TA’s are outside getting children off the buses and into the school.”
Byerly noted that her school, B.H. Tharrington, shared a school nurse with Jones Intermediate. “When the nurse isn’t here the teacher assistant is the one who comes and sits and takes care of that child.”
“Our teaching assistants provide necessary coverage around campus, such as lunch and breakfast duty, a program called Early Bird where parents can drop students off at school before school actually starts, we could lose all of this and more,” said Dana Draughn, principal at Flat Rock Elementary.
Each individual spoke about the potential setback it could have on children, especially in the literacy model each school system uses. Both schools break into small groups of 3-5 and having the teacher assistant, allows these groups to gain the instruction they need to master the skills, to “shore up holes in learning” as Draughn said.
Scott said she believes eliminating teaching assistants would lower education standards in North Carolina and would have a negative effect on the children most importantly, but the state and the economy as well. “Corporations are not going to seek to come to a state where our educational standards aren’t as high as the next.”
The Senate has pointed to studies that showed little to no benefits in learning behaviors, test scores or academic achievement for students in a classroom setting with a teaching assistant. The answer however is different from a local level.
Jennifer Gentry, a teaching assistant of 12 years at Flat Rock Elementary said she really had no fallback position. “I’m just praying I can keep my job.”
Surry County Schools have 117 teacher assistants, if the senate version of the state budget was to be passed 61 of those positions would be cut. The city schools have 27 teaching assistants. Surry county and Mount Airy city schools have both explored options with the board and their teaching assistants should the budget cuts be made law, both school systems have discussed hourly cuts to every teaching assistant to as low as 30 hours per week. If these hourly cuts are to be made, it still would not save the schools from having to eliminate positions.
“Teacher assistants are really the backbone in our education,” said Draughn.
Reach Eva Queen at (336) 415-4739 or firstname.lastname@example.org