The following opinion was shared on the Belmontonian on February 22, 2021.
I have been a public-school educator for the past 22 years and currently work as a middle school special educator. I have two children at Butler Elementary School, where I believe they have received and continue to receive an excellent education. However, we are now at a crossroads in our town, and I am very concerned that if we do not pass the override on April 6, our schools will be unable to maintain the high quality of education from which my children and many others have benefitted.
We talk about how we value education in Belmont, yet Belmont spends less than other towns in Massachusetts in nearly every category of the school budget. Belmont is already in the bottom three percent in Massachusetts in number of teachers per 100 students (class size) and in the bottom six percent in Massachusetts in per pupil expenditure. A failed override would make our teacher-student ratio even worse. That funding – or lack thereof – plays out in real ways in the classroom.
One way funding plays out is with class size. In my experience, class size DOES matter. To be sure, highly skilled teachers know how to manage large classes and to differentiate to meet the needs of many students with various needs. But those who say that the size of the class does not significantly affect the experience of the student and the teacher have spent little time in actual K-12 classrooms. The more students there are in the classroom, the less individual attention each student receives during the school day. During a 57-minute class period, there simply isn’t time for a teacher to check in with 28 students individually. Large class sizes mean fewer opportunities for students and teachers to connect, for students to get feedback, and for students to ask questions and have those questions answered. There is less time for teachers to discover students’ passions and to assess where students might be struggling.
What is less obvious is that with each additional student, a teacher’s workload increases exponentially. It can mean an additional 30 minutes per child spent reading an essay or grading a math assessment and writing constructive feedback. It can mean an additional hour preparing for, holding, and following up after a parent-teacher conference for each additional child. It’s not that teachers are unwilling to do this. In fact, every Belmont Schools educator who has taught our two children has worked well beyond contractual hours to prepare lessons, communicate with us, and give our students feedback. Moreover, children’s needs extend beyond academics. When our high school cannot hire a social worker, it doesn’t mean that children don’t bring their concerns to school. It means that helping students work through problems is another part of what teachers and other school-based staff members do, putting additional stresses on their time.
What Belmont doesn’t have in dollars, my children’s dedicated teachers at Butler make up for in energy, hard work, and time. However, time is a limited resource. At some point, it just runs out. With increasing enrollment, we will not be able to maintain the quality of education upon which Belmont prides itself, and we certainly won’t be able to make improvements and add new programs. If the override fails, it is our students who will suffer.
Some might say that research about class size is inconclusive. Let me tell you what is NOT inconclusive: the importance of the teacher. In fact, it is incredibly well-documented that the most important school-related factor that affects student achievement is teacher quality. Just because our Belmont educators and administrators have worked with fewer resources than our neighboring schools does not mean that we should continue to underfund our schools. Just because the best teachers make it look easy does not mean the burden isn’t heavy. Without this override, I fear that the work will be too heavy to bear, and our schools will not be able to maintain their reputation for excellence.
We will not be able to retain high quality, experienced educators with large class sizes and without the resources that most other districts around us can offer. We will not be able to attract more teachers of color to join an overwhelmingly white teaching staff when they can choose districts with smaller class sizes and more resources.
Our lean school budget is not a source of pride or a sign of fiscal responsibility. It means that our children, especially those with learning differences who often need extra time and specialized instruction, aren’t getting what they need and deserve. As a special education professional, I was particularly shocked to learn that our elementary schools do not have Special Education Chairs. Children who receive special education services have Individual Education Plans (IEP), legally binding documents that outline how the child learns and the services, accommodations, and modifications the student requires as well as the goals that the child is working to achieve. Special educators spend time assessing students, differentiating for student needs, modifying curriculum, and providing accommodations so that students can be successful and master their IEP goals. These are practices in which all good teachers engage. Another facet of a special educator’s job is completing compliance related paperwork. This paperwork is critical for our students on IEPs to ensure they are receiving the services they need. It is also very onerous and time intensive. Without Special Education Chairs, those responsibilities fall solely on the teachers and school psychologists. This often leaves those educators with even less time to prepare lessons or provide feedback to students. Hiring special education chairs is not an extra; it allows classroom teachers to devote their time to the job of teaching.
I hear people say: Belmont students have done well, so why do the schools keep asking for more? For my family, like many others I know, the excellent reputation of the school system is one of the reasons we moved to Belmont. Many Belmont students do well on standardized tests, an important but very limited measure. However, I’ve spoken with many parents and caregivers of students who receive special education services, or even those who might not have been identified, who say their students are not receiving all the services they need. That’s not because the teachers who work with them are not excellent or hardworking. It’s because our system does not have the capacity to do more. An education system that prides itself on being excellent must be committed to serving ALL students, not just those for whom learning comes easily.
For years, Belmont educators have done so much with very little, but this isn’t a trip to the dollar bin at Target. It isn’t a game where we try to get as much as we can with as little as possible. These are our children’s futures. If we say we value education, it’s time that the funding we provide truly reflects that sentiment.
Please vote yes for the override on April 6.
Stephanie J. Crement