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Why Wake County is having to put two teachers in some elementary school classrooms

Some Wake County elementary school classrooms have two teachers in them — a decision that school leaders say was made not by choice but instead to help meet new state class-size limits.

This school year, 11 Wake elementary schools are using "co-teaching," in which two teachers are assigned to the same room as a way to allow a class to have more students than normal. School leaders say the practice will increase as the district grows and the state continues to lower K-3 class sizes over the next few years.

The Wake County school board is asking for a record $58.9 million local funding increase. Of that amount, $2.9 million would go toward hiring teachers mid-year to get class sizes down, such as by putting two educators in the same classroom.

But Wake County Manager David Ellis proposes giving a $30.1 million increase. The school board and Wake County Board of Commissioners will discuss the school budget request at a joint meeting Tuesday.

“We’re not saying smaller class sizes is a bad thing," said Wake school board member Lindsay Mahaffey "But we need the time, the funding and the flexibility in order to do this right for our students and our teachers.”

Class sizes in K-3 dropped from a maximum of 24 students per room last school year to 23 this year. It will drop to 22 students in 2019 and 21 in 2020.

By the 2021-22 school year, North Carolina elementary school class sizes will be capped at 18 children in kindergarten, 16 in first grade and 17 in second and third grades.

The changes had been set to go into effect immediately this fall, but state lawmakers agreed in February to phase in the changes after school officials said they didn’t have the thousands of extra classrooms needed.

School officials also warned they might have to fire art, music and physical education teachers to come up with the money to hire additional K-3 teachers. As part of the phase-in, state lawmakers agreed to begin providing money to pay for these teachers.

But while lawmakers agreed to phase in the changes, they left in place new rules requiring school districts to quickly address any K-3 classes that are over the limit. Wake school officials are calling it an unfunded mandate because the state won't provide money to hire new teachers for classes that exceed limits after the second month of school.

“I don’t think you’re going to find any educator that isn’t a fan of lower ratios," said Ruth Steidinger, principal of Olive Chapel Elementary School in Apex. "We all are. It’s funding that’s the thing.

"Don’t make us rob Peter to pay Paul. I’m all about the proposed ratio, but I just want it funded at the end of the day.”

In addition to using co-teaching to meet this school year's standards, 26 Wake elementary schools have "combination" classes made up of students from different grade levels. At 35 elementary schools, storage rooms, conference rooms, offices and a variety of other spaces have been converted into classrooms.

An additional 438 K-3 classrooms will be needed in the next few years.

Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore told the school board that co-teaching used to be an anomaly in Wake. But it's become a necessity now at some schools.

Steidinger is a fan of co-teaching, but not of the way she says she had to use it this school year at Olive Chapel. When Steidinger saw that a third-grade class would have 27 students — four more than allowed under state law — she hired a co-teacher instead of using money she had set aside to pay for a drama teacher.

“It’s not a matter of liking or disliking co-teaching," Steidinger said. "It’s what we had to do to stay in compliance. It’s the fact that we had to do it at the expense of drama."

Third-grade teacher Stacie York said she and fellow teacher Megan Mott have taken turns leading the class, with the other person working with struggling students. Other times they may break up the class into small groups with both teachers circulating among them.

“It still feels like I’m in a class of 27 kids," York said. "You’re still responsible for all 27 kids at the end of the day.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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