Education Opinion

Off to a Great Start

By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — January 17, 2008 3 min read
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One of the best things about working is schools is that you have a chance to start a new year twice, once when school opens and a second time when the calendar year changes. We’ve started the new year with a bang.

We hired a full-time speech therapist that started work this week. She has already visited every class and reviewed the records of our identified students who need speech services. We’ve even developed a plan to give them compensatory services for the therapy that they missed. She was so well received by the classroom teachers, receiving smiles, handshakes, and even hugs upon introduction, that she asked me if there was something she didn’t know about the job. I told her that we were all just very happy to have some much needed support for the students.

The principal also interviewed two special education para educators who will be starting in a few days. They will provide assistance to regular classroom teachers who have special needs children on their rolls in our inclusion program. I’ve been looking for housing for our new Math teacher who is arriving soon also. We still have several important positions vacant and applications are being accepted for the social worker and the librarian. Actually, we have a few applications but we are anticipating getting more choices within the week.

Pre-Katrina, we would have staffed all of these positions by the second week of October. Usually, once the official enrollment count was completed, principals would go to a re-staffing meeting. If the school’s enrollment figures were too low, certified teachers could be cut from the staff and surplused to another school. If your numbers were higher than expected, you could pick up extra staff.

Support positions were generally supplemented with federal funds like Title I. High poverty schools were eligible for extra funding. These schools could use some of that money to pay for additional staffing in areas such as social work, nursing, counseling, and staff development. To its credit, the Recovery School District has these support positions filled with mostly full-time employees at every school. That’s our goal.

Unfortunately, we do not have the federal dollars to support these full-time positions yet. Last year, the RSD operated in emergency mode without a budget. Charter schools did not have that luxury. The federal funds were not released until late in the spring. Charter schools that hired support staff, under the assumption that they could claim reimbursements quickly, were disappointed when Title I funds were not released until April. We have been slow to fill every position out of apprehension that the funding would be late again.

Last Monday, January 7, in the Times-Picayune article, “17 in RSD central office will lose jobs” the RSD reported cutting 26 positions to save $1 million. Some of these people are certified Math and Reading Coaches. Our certified teachers were given contracts this year so that they would not have to worry about keeping their jobs or unanticipated lay offs. It also meant that we had to make sure we had funding to pay everyone, in case our enrollment was not strong enough.

Our decision was to delay some of the staffing of support positions to guarantee that those we hired would keep their positions. It’s our first year and we know that many of our employees have high rents and leases that are binding. It seems like an immoral decision to terminate someone who went through the trouble of relocating or returning to New Orleans only to learn after five months that their job is gone.

Even though we don’t have the federal dollars yet, we only have a semester to pay our support staff. Our budget can tolerate that, so we are looking for a part-time nurse (some of them were in the laid off group), a curriculum coordinator, and an aide from those who need new employment, now that they’ve received their pink slips. Once our federal funds start to flow, we should be able to be fully staffed when school opens next year. There’s a huge difference between staffing a building and building a staff.

There are those people who will question our priorities. Others will complain that we are not moving fast enough. The students who survived the traumas of the past two years need the support of social workers and counselors. There is a health care crisis in New Orleans and nurses are a pricey commodity. I’d love to hire an Art teacher and a Spanish teacher, neither of which is on the high priority list. But we decided to hire the classroom teachers first and everyone else later. Our movement is deliberate, if not speedy.

The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.