Last year at Powhatan Elementary School, second-grade teacher Heidi Mills had a teaching assistant for half a day. This year, she has an assistant for less than an hour and considers herself fortunate.
For the 2013-14 school year, the N.C. General Assembly cut funding for teaching assistants; in Johnston County, funding fell from $12.6 million, or 276 positions, to about $10 million, or 242 positions.
At Powhatan Elementary, Mills and her fellow second grade teachers share a single, part-time assistant; last year, second grade had 2.5 positions.
“It does have quite an impact,” Mills said.
Second-graders at Powhatan are getting less individual attention, and because some testing is one-on-one, children are waiting longer for testing, Mills said.
“It’s a little bit more stress on the teachers, but also for the students,” she said. “They enjoy having that other person there.”
In defending the budget cut, lawmakers pointed to studies showing that teaching assistants are most effective in grades K-1. North Carolina has long put assistants in K-5 schools.
The state lawmakers’ thinking makes no sense to Rich Nixon, head of the Johnston County Association of Educators. “It just boggles my mind,” he said. “Who would ever say that having fewer adults working with our youngest students is a good idea?”
Nixon sees little difference between a first-grader and second-grader. “As a kid gets older, you’re able to teach effectively large numbers because ... they’re able to stay focused for longer periods,” he said. But at a young age, “it’s very difficult to find activities or to do things for a long period of time that involve a whole class.”
In cutting funding, the General Assembly did not mandate that schools use teaching assistants only in grades K-1. In Johnston County, many principals are choosing to spread the remaining assistants across elementary grades, said schools spokeswoman Tracey Peedin-Jones.
With assistants spread thin, teachers are becoming creative, often turning to parent volunteers to help in the classroom, said Powhatan principal Sharon Johnson.
“(Teachers) have had to redo how they do things sometimes just to make sure that they can get to all the children with one less body in there helping them,” she said.
At West Clayton Elementary School, principal Dolores Gill regrets that she was unable to replace three teaching assistants who retired. “Every time you have a teacher assistant in the classroom, you’re having an opportunity for that child to get more an individualized experience,” she said. “The teacher assistants really are the glue that kind of makes sure everything is tied together.”
Recent education cuts trickle down
In Johnston County, the number of teaching assistants has actually been smaller than the funding allotment because the schools have used part of those funds to make up for funding cuts elsewhere. Last year, for example, the schools diverted $4 million marked for assistants to classroom teachers.
“This conversion was made because of cuts to our teacher allotment and in order for us to keep class sizes as small as possible,” Peedin-Jones said. “This conversion is allowed by the state so that each school system can maximize funding in the way it feels best meets the needs of its students.”
Johnston does have other sources of funding for assistants, but by law it must spend those dollars for teaching assistants in low-income schools and in programs for exceptional children.
In all, the General Assembly’s funding cut displaced 27 teaching assistants in Johnston County. The schools rehired all but three, thanks in part to the retirement of a dozen other teaching assistants. But not all got jobs as assistants.
Carla Withrow, principal at South Smithfield Elementary School, is thankful for the assistants she has. “Because, of course, we’re in the business of helping children learn, and I think that personnel is our greatest resource,” she said. “So you can have a lot of books, you can have a lot of things, but I think the teachers and teacher assistants are the key.”
Lourdes Cabrerra, a teacher assistant at South Smithfield Elementary, has been a TA for about four years. “I just love it,” she said. “I love to help the kids. I’m 100-plus percent when I’m there. Every day for the children.”
Regardless of the funding level, the focus at school is always the children, Withrow said. “No matter what they’re doing in Raleigh, what we do every day is work with the children, every day,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for.”