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4-J Not Alone: Classroom Size And Time Constraints Frustrate Teachers Statewide

Tiffany Eckert

Recently released results from an Oregon  Department of Education survey reveal most educators feel teaching and learning conditions are good --but class-size and lack of support time remain serious issues. To learn more, KLCC's Tiffany Eckert examines how these findings have played out at one 4-J elementary school and the outlook for the district next year.

Brittenham: "You know I love what I do and it feels harder than it should…"

Tami Brittenham is a third grade teacher at Awbrey Park Elementary. She's taught in 4-J schools for 13 years. This  educator is no shrinking violet.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Tami Brittenham in her 3rd grade classroom.

At the last 4-J public hearing, Brittenham stood before the district's Board of Directors to talk about how overwhelming her job has become. Oversized classrooms, new testing standards, lack of prep time. She says teachers have too much on their plates. It frustrates Brittenham to not have enough time to check in with each student on a personal level.

Brittenham: "I remember when the numbers were more like 24-25, I could meet everyone's needs. When you're talking 32-36 kids in one room--it's too much.  It's mind boggling anyone could think you can meet the needs of all kids in those kind of conditions."

Brittenham says there are just "not enough bodies" to serve students, especially when a behavioral problem disrupts her super-size class.

There was a time when Brittenham could count on the help of a full-time counselor. But, this year, Awbrey Park's counselor, Kristen Gianforti, was moved to half-time. Now she also teaches half time.

Gianforti: "I've seen a greater level of stress this year, not just with Tami- with all of the teachers across the entire district."

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Kristin Gianforti enters her counselor office at Awbrey Park Elementary.

As the fiscal year nears an end, 4-J is wrapping up union negotiations and finalizing the next budget. Gianforti says despite how contracts and numbers fall out, the issues faced by many students will need a lot of attention.

Gianforti: "Deaths in families, a mom or a dad dying. We've had a few of those kids unfortunately this year. Students in foster care, parents in jail. Kids dealing with divorces. Behavioral and emotional needs. Families that have lost jobs. Homelessness."

Budgets are balanced by making difficult, unpopular cuts to staff and services. Schools in districts around the state struggle with how best to cut an ever dwindling pie.

When Awbrey Park parents and teachers came together en masse to speak their concerns to the 4-J board, they weren't sure what would come of it.

Anne Marie Levis is a fifth year school board member.

Levis: "What I appreciated about this group from the school is they were trying to bring to the board's attention maybe some unintended consequences of some of the things that had come about."

She says members often feel at a loss when people bring their issues to the board because they're policy makers. It is up to the superintendent to implement those policies.

According to the teachers at Awbrey Park, within weeks, action was taken to resolve at least a few of their most pressing problems. Namely, additional hours were appropriated in the form of teacher assistance in the most crowded classrooms.

Mary Walston is the current chair of the Eugene School Board. The board's highest priority is final approval of next year's budget.

Walston: "Originally we thought we'd have about a 3 million dollar plus gap when the preliminary budget was proposed. Since that time, we got some very good news from the state. The economy around the state is looking up and then our ending fund balance, that is the money that we don't spend that we had budgeted for was greater than we thought."

Walston says what that means is next year won't see teacher layoffs and there is a chance of adding some full time (FTE) teachers.

Walston:""And continue our prep time for our elementary students and maintain or reduce even our class sizes. And, have our furlough days reduced. The gap is gone."

The budget committee has approved the 2014-15 budget and on June 18, the board will vote to adopt. Walston and Levis say a balanced budget is good news for them, the superintendent, teachers and students. But, unexpected windfalls are rare and the district could easily be in a deficit situation again in just two years.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked in a variety of media including television and daily print news. For KLCC, Tiffany reports on health care, social justice and local/regional news. She has won awards from Oregon Associated Press, PRNDI, and Education Writers Association.