School cuts hurt in Elmira

Soon NYSUT United readers will be getting their May issues. There is a two-page spread about how school districts across the state are coping with budget cuts this year with information about the Elmira City Schools.

But even with a two-page spread, sadly there’s much more to the story.

The cuts are just that deep.

In March, I started planning a trip to Elmira after hearing about the possibility of layoffs for 126 educators in the Southern Tier school district. Penny Stoner is a teaching assistant in technology at one of the Elmira’s two high schools. She was instrumental in arranging my trips to various schools and advance interviews with educators. She’s also the secretary of the Elmira Teachers Association.

During one phone call she mentioned that she also will be laid off.

“Oh my goodness Penny, what are you going to do?” I asked her.

“Oh, I’ll be able to get another job, but these students won’t get another chance,” Stoner said, noting technology labs will most likely close in all secondary buildings.

That kind of attitude underscored the dozens of interviews I conducted over the phone or in person during a two-day visit.

Here’s a slide show of photos taken by me and Steve Appel during those days.

Here’s some vignettes that did not make it into the story.

Support staff

Liz Enlow is a kindergarten aide in a class of 28 students at the Diven Elementary School.

“That class size is a huge factor… because the state and the district expect our children to learn so much more than even five years ago,” said Enlow, a member of the Elmira Instructional Support union. “These children are our future and they are the ones who will be running for president one day and taking care of us. Can you imagine what it will be like without giving them what they need and deserve?”

Elementary level cuts hurt

To stay within its tax levy cap, the district was forced to cut back on all non-mandated programs. Gone are elementary art, music, physical education and librarians and cut back are reading, counseling and special education supports. The only non-mandated elementary programs left are pre-K and kindergarten.

The academic elementary teachers are at a loss. Fifth-grade teacher Corina Forsythe agrees that without art, music, library, physical education and reading, elementary schools in Elmira will become skeleton schools. “The main reason my class and I are able to do what we do is because of the support those areas give my students. They constantly reinforce in their lessons what we are covering.” she said.

Fifth-graders know about the budget cuts because rather than going to middle school they will stay in their elementary school – but without the special area teachers and the librarian.

For fifth-grader Makayla Walrod, the cuts don’t make sense. Especially the librarian.

“How do you have a school without a librarian?” she asked. “Don’t you know we go on adventures in books?”

At Diven Elementary, the librarian is Mia Krause and she extends the adventures past the library and down the hallways through to the cafeteria, where the work of all students adorn the walls. Currently, there are student drawings of a 2-year-old African elephant.

Impact on special education

Special education teachers like Jessie Mayall said they are deeply concerned about the unintended impact on students with disabilities.

“Peer interaction is so important among these students and for those students who must be in self-contained classrooms for academics, the only time they get with students without disabilities is during music, art, library and sometimes physical education,” Mayall said. “I am so worried about what will happen to all of the students if they no longer get valuable social interaction with each other at young ages.”

Secondary level cuts hurt

Cuts at the secondary level are also drastic to non-mandated programs. Kathy Pilling-Whitney has taught art in the southern tier district for 33 years. Each year she sees sixth-graders entering Broadway Middle School with a strong base in the arts. She builds on that and by eighth-grade about 70 students enroll in two advanced-level classes that earn high school credit.

Those courses, as well as advanced art courses at the high school, will not be taught next year.

At a community budget forum, Pilling-Whitney testified at length about the many changes in education policy over the years that have made her a better teacher, starting with the fact that New York was the first in the nation to require teachers to earn their master’s degrees within five years of teaching. The curriculum has changed – for the better – as more research has shown how connected art is to other disciplines. Pilling-Whitney cited a journal article about how art and design education fit into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics as she noted how linked brain science and art are.

In her testimony, Pilling-Whitney noted that she thinks because the complex types of learning for art, music, physical education and languages “are difficult to assess they are also easy to dismiss.”  That is wrong, she said, and contributes to the complex problems that are conspiring against public education.

“It’s time to stop unfunded mandates and stop gimmicks in education like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top,” Pilling-Whitney said. “Choice, vouchers, charter schools are not the answers … because they are just taking money away from public schools and may be another way of segregating our schools.”

Rob Dumas teaches music to secondary students in Elmira. Now students come into middle school with a solid base in music education.

“Different beats in music is a basic, and we start teaching how to keep a steady beat with the youngest kids by having them pat their knees,” Dumas said. “That will change and then I can’t even imagine what it will be like to teach a seventh grader the basics of music.”

Music education starts with pre-K. One of the two lessons a week is usually devoted to literacy and the academic needs of the class. That pairing of literacy and academic needs continues into kindergarten and all grades. By fifth grades, most elementary schools have choirs, orchestras and band groups.

Technology cuts hurt

Steve Edgertown teaches technology at Ernie Davis Middle School. Currently the district is able to offer more than what the state requires. Technology is a popular subject and Edgerton enjoys making the topics relevant.

“Why do we have to learn this?” a student asks when he begins a measurement unit.

“You ever going to want curtains for a window or carpet for your floors?” Edgerton asks. “Are you ever going to try to bake something?” Students get the message – and the class goes on.

The article in NYSUT United notes that no one in the community wants to make these cuts.

But chop they must.

Pilling-Whitney knows the crucial role programs that use different types of learning have in a student’s learning.

“In five years no one one will remember that we’re a school district that made it in the Race to the Top,” Pilling-Whitney said. “What they will remember is that this is the school district that cut off so many programs for students who needed the experiences to gain core knowledge.”

Perhaps something will change that dire prediction.

Stay tuned for updates.

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6 Comments

  1. Tamara Miller April 17, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    Jobs can be saved with union concessions. The opportunity to was there last year. Will this year be a repeat?

  2. Alison Beckhorn April 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    As a parent with children in the Elmira City School District, I am appalled at these cuts. My children are involved in every aspect of school, sports, music, academics, art and special education. Why isn’t the board asking voters if we’re willing to go over the cap to save some programs?? Why hasn’t there been any other options given to us? I will vote NO to this budget and I’m asking all community members to do the same. These cuts are WAY too drastic. There has to be a middle ground.

  3. Mary Jane Eckel April 20, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    Voting NO to this budget is the worst thing you could do!

    A NO vote would send the ECSD into an austerity budget, forcing more cuts to staff and programs. At this week’s BOE meeting, the BOE voted to increase the tax levy to 5% in an effort to restore some programs/teaching positions. I am hopeful that the unions will also support this effort to bring back programs with salary concessions, which to date has not happened.

  4. Lisa Hill April 27, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Another issue not mentioned here is the redistricting of our children. Children who are accustomed to going to school in the safest area in Elmira will be transported into the most unsafe area in Elmira. The numbers from the police departments support my statement. In addition, parents have not been given ample time or opportunity to try to come up with some alternative options. The way this matter has been handled is truly appalling and does not give parents confidence in the school board and certainly not in the governor of our state.

    I too will vote no for the budget. I am being asked to pay 5% more in taxes so my child who was previously in a safe neighborhood can go to school in a dangerous neighborhood and have less programs. My extra money from now on will be for tuition for private school so my child can learn in a safe environment.

  5. irene November 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    I do not understand the reasoning of cuts for these chikdren and then using lottery money to pay winners five million dollars.. Come on…Any winnet wouldd be quite happy with one million.. wouldn’t they??

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