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Commentary: Best gift of more money is gift of more time

Ellie Herman | April 16, 2014

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images-2Under the new Local Control Funding Formula, LA Unified schools in underserved communities will be given $837 million to meet the needs of students in poverty, English learners and children in foster care. It’s not yet clear exactly how that money will be allocated, and it’s still less than what we’ve thrown at iPads. But it’s desperately needed.

As a teacher who worked in a high-poverty high school and is now spending a year observing classrooms across the socioeconomic spectrum in L.A., here’s how that funding could help:

Giving teachers time to plan multi-level lessons for each class.

One of the biggest differences I’ve seen between classrooms in affluent communities and in high-poverty communities is the range of skill levels. In affluent communities, students generally read at or near grade level and have a history of positive or neutral experience with school, as well as at least one parent at home always available for help.

In high-poverty communities, in any given class, you’ll probably have a handful of kids who fit that description and who need and deserve all the challenge and stimulation of a fast-paced class to compete for spaces at top colleges alongside more affluent students.

But right next to them, you’ll have kids who are still learning English.  Those kids need “scaffolded” lessons with shortened readings; they also need writing assignments with fill-in-the-blanks support so that they can learn academic phrasing.

Right next to them, you’ll have kids with serious behavior issues, sometimes from growing up in multiple foster homes.  All over the classroom you’ll have kids who, in the absence of libraries, bookstores or books at home, have never read a book. And you’ll have several empty seats because of the kids who, despite your pleas and phone calls home, are truant for large chunks of time.

I once had a 12th grade student who read “The Golden Compass” as part of an in-class reading program and told me it was the first book he’d ever read.

Lowering class size and reducing teachers’ class load would help enormously in allowing teachers time to plan multi-level lessons. It would also give us time to read our students’ work with care and give prompt, thoughtful feedback, something we all know is essential for writing growth but which you never have time to do if you’re planning every moment of every lesson at multiple levels — and you have to, or students will get bored, check out and act out.

Giving in-class support to kids who are way ahead or behind.

Most of the canonical texts on any syllabus will be incomprehensible to English learners and other high-needs students unless a teacher slows down to define words in nearly every sentence, then checks to make sure everyone in the room understands what’s going on, an essential practice that will bore the gifted students out of their minds.

Having a classroom aide who can pull out small groups and run enrichment lessons for struggling or highly proficient kids would be a godsend.

Giving extracurricular support to struggling students.

In-class support will help, but the truth is, when students come in several years below grade level, the time they actually spend in class is nowhere near enough to get up to speed. When kids read at, say, fifth grade level, it doesn’t just affect their understanding of a text, it affects the speed at which the whole class reads that text, which in turn affects how much everybody learns.

Kids in poverty, certainly kids in foster care, often do not have a place at home to read and many times live in chaotic, stressful situations; for many English learners, the text has too much unfamiliar vocabulary to access independently.

If kids way below grade level are going to get up to speed, they need to be making up for lost time by reading after school and in the summer, too. Funding for reading intervention programs outside the school day would help bump boost literacy while still allowing teachers to support kids in class with close reading.

Giving support to kids with behavior issues.

Children in high-poverty communities, especially kids who live in foster care, are often suffering from trauma that can cause them to act out in class. This acting-out inevitably has a ripple effect on everyone else in the class, intimidating or demoralizing other students. If I can’t persuade that student to calm down, I need someone who can help, such as a classroom aide who can take the kid out for a walk or a counselor who can dig deeper.

I’m hearing very positive reports about Restorative Justice circles, groups working to help kids heal from trauma and handle their issues constructively. Frankly, as a teacher, I’d love to get that Restorative Justice training myself, which currently costs $500; if that’s not possible, I’d love to see at least a couple of people on every campus trained to administer these circles and train staff in understanding the practice so we can better collaborate to help our most at-risk students.

In other words, what this money might give is the gift of time—time for students to work closely with a trusted adult and for those adults to collaborate to better serve their students. We have a generation of students in poverty who have grown up in an era of funding cuts, overcrowded classrooms and testing gone wild. We need time to rebuild, time to learn, time to get to know families and communities. We need time to listen.

That’s not shiny and fun like a gadget. But it may be the most valuable commodity of all for the money.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.

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