Schools to consider adding teachers aides

Budget plan calls for 1 assistant per kindergarten

February 13, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun Reporter

Catherine Fu beamed, and then cringed when she encouraged her kindergarten son, Adam, to take a book to school to show off his new reading skills for his teacher.

"I told him to take it to school and read it to her, but I had this feeling that I don't know if she'll have time to sit and hear him read the whole thing," Fu recalled. "My son's teacher is awesome. She's experienced. She's loving and very capable. I think the world of his teacher. But it's just the numbers of students they have to deal with."

Fu said she believes Adam's teacher at Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville would be more effective if she had an assistant to help manage the class of nearly 30 kindergartners. In light of several similar pleas, the Baltimore County school board is set to consider a proposal to place an assistant in every kindergarten classroom next school year.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's initial proposed operating budget, unveiled early last month, didn't include funds for additional kindergarten assistants. But after hearing comments, Hairston amended his proposal to add a request for $2.7 million to hire enough assistants to assign one per kindergarten classroom.

School board members are expected to vote tonight on Hairston's budget, which includes the proposal. The school board's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 must be forwarded to County Executive James T. Smith Jr. by March 1.

Hiring an assistant for each kindergarten classroom was proposed as a part of last year's budget proposed by the school board, but county government officials instead funded one assistant per elementary school - at a cost of $1 million - and promised to launch a program enlisting senior citizens to volunteer.

Teachers say the volunteer plan hasn't worked out, and with the final round of elementary schools set to adopt all-day kindergarten in the fall, they desperately need the extra help.

"The idea of volunteers is great. But volunteers are just that. They don't have to show up," said Abby Beytin, a kindergarten teacher at Timber Grove Elementary in Owings Mills.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said volunteer distribution has been spotty, with some schools attracting more than others.

Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for Smith, said Friday that he didn't have numbers for how many volunteers the county has signed up but said the program has "grown quite well throughout the year."

"One thing parents and teachers know is that Jim Smith has been incredibly supportive of the education budget, and they have every reason to expect that to continue," Mohler said.

Like many of the county's elementary schools, Timber Grove's kindergarten teachers share a single assistant. For Beytin, who has 22 children in her class, that often means that the assistant is helping another kindergarten teacher when she needs help.

"For early childhood education, it's the nuts and bolts, the hands-on materials, that have to be gathered for a lesson," said Beytin, who is also chairwoman of the school system's Northwest Area Educational Advisory Council. "It takes a tremendous amount of time."

Beytin said it is difficult to do group work without an assistant.

"If I'm there alone working with a reading group, and I have to say sorry to the other kids and tell them that they can't come to me right now, what are the other kids supposed to do?" Beytin said. "It's frustrating for teachers. We can't do our job well. And the children can't possibly get what they need under those circumstances."

School board members recently debated options that included funding one assistant for every two teachers, one assistant for each classroom or two assistants per school.

An additional assistant per school would cost about $1.9 million, according to schools officials. The board reached consensus on the need to seek funding to provide one assistant per class despite the county's refusal last year.

"It's ludicrous to talk about one [assistant] per school," said board member Warren Hayman. "If you have five kindergartens in a school, and one helper is going to be divided among five [teachers], I think we're fooling ourselves and we're not being responsible."

Board member Joy Shillman said she was doubtful that the county would honor that request this year.

"If we could get the county government to accept two per school, I say go for it," she said. "This is a changing time in a changing society, and we must give these teachers an aide."

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