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City teachers try to make do with fewer staff, supplies

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
City teachers try to make do with fewer staff, supplies
First grade teacher Shauntell Dunbar surveys a table full of supplies she purchased for her classroom at Young Achievers School of Science and Math in Mattapan. Many BPS teachers are spending more of their own money on supplies this year as schools grapple with budget constraints. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

With city pavement still baking under August sun, it may seem early to think of fall clothes, lunch boxes and school supplies. But Boston teachers have been out shopping, seeking to outfit their classrooms and gather everyday supplies that families can’t afford and school budgets don’t cover.

“Oh my gosh, I’ve been buying,” said Shauntell Dunbar, a first grade teacher at Young Achievers School of Science and Math in Mattapan. “I’ve already spent more than $500 on just the basics: crayons, dry-erase markers and colored pencils — and I’m not even close to finishing.”

On the web

Boston Public Schools:

BPS Citywide Parent Council:

Donors Choose:

GoFundMe for education:

Unloading bags of supplies and surveying her classroom earlier this week, she voiced both enthusiasm and worry.

A Boston Public Schools alumna who grew up in Dorchester, Dunbar began teaching at BPS last year, entering the field with years of nonprofit experience and a master’s degree in early childhood education with special education certification. She was featured in The Boston Globe twice in her initial year as the embodiment of a hopeful and promising first-year teacher.

Now, in some ways Dunbar has more reason to be nervous than in her first year. Last year she had a fulltime assistant in her classroom; this year, all three first grade rooms will share a single assistant, she said. Last year, the Reading Recovery program brought a specialist who pulled students out for one-to-one help and guided parents in improving reading support at home; now, that help will be available to only half as many students.

“Not having an assistant means less support for kids who really need it,” she said. “Now I have to decide how many students I can reach each day. I have to choose when to support this student, and when that one.”

Scrimp and save

Sylvaine Lestrade, who teaches second grade at the William Monroe Trotter Innovation School, learned recently that her school will not be providing many of the supplies teachers usually get at the start of the school year.

“So we need to be looking at back-to-school sales,” Lestrade said. “Tape, staples, colored pencils, crayons — the basic supplies. I believe I’m going to be asking the parents for things like tissue and hand sanitizer, but every other thing, like pencils, I’ll just continue to buy.”

Her school will feel budget constraints more deeply this year, she said, and as always, the funding shortage hits vulnerable students hard. She ticked off a list of conditions faced by the Trotter community: “100 percent of our kids have free or reduced lunch eligibility. Some live in motels. Parents are unemployed. Some of the kids suffer from ADHD and other disabilities that we have to focus on.”

After a tumultuous period of public discussions, hearings and parent- and student-led protests earlier this year, Mayor Martin Walsh’s proposed BPS budget was approved June 29 by the city council. The vote was nine to four, with Tito Jackson, Ayanna Pressley, Annissa Essaibi-George and Andrea Campbell in opposition.

While the budget raises BPS funding over last year, public school stakeholders argue it is not enough to meet the budget shortfall and the increasing needs of Boston students.

“This is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” said Sara Wolff, a learning specialist for first grade at Young Achievers who has been with BPS since 1993. Besides the reduction in Reading Recovery services this year, she noted the dispiriting distraction and time drain for teachers during last spring’s contentious budget discussions and hearings.

BPS student needs are only growing, teachers and advocates say. They cite a rise in family homelessness, more students coming from countries in which they experienced trauma and a growing body of research indicating the need for conscious attention to social and emotional learning. They are concerned about the new budget’s $2,040 decrease in weighted per-pupil funding for autistic students and $1,200 to $3,200 per-pupil drop for elementary and secondary students with emotional impairments.

“It’s not like the students have changed, just the way they weighed them,” said Dunbar. Young Achievers is an inclusion school, she said, and her incoming class of 22 will include eight students with individual education programs (IEPs) to accommodate various disabilities.

Meeting students’ needs

Neema Avashia, an eighth grade civics teacher at John W. McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, said, “If I have a student who’s struggling emotionally or needs to check in one-on-one with an adult, there are way fewer people to do that work. Fewer people in the building means there will be kids whose needs aren’t being met.”

Avashia, too, has been stocking up on supplies. Last week she bought 240 notebooks, 300 mechanical pencils and cleaning supplies to help keep her classroom clean and students from getting sick, she said.

She posted a picture on Facebook of her car’s trunk jammed with school supplies, along with a pointed message showing the unease shared by many BPS teachers and parents about charter schools, which draw per-pupil state aid from district public schools.

“Aside from basic furniture,” she wrote, “everything in my room is something I buy. Adding more charter [schools] drains resources from already-strapped public schools, which means that families and teachers are covering the difference.”

Besides spending their own money and asking parents to chip in, some teachers are turning to online platforms like GoFundMe or DonorsChoose with hopes of crowdsourcing money for extra furniture, technology or basic supplies. At McCormack, teachers raised funds earlier this year to reopen the shuttered school library, now staffed by volunteers.

Avashia and others noted that this year’s pain comes on top of previous budget cuts, and voiced alarm about a “new normal” in which budget shortfalls year after year after year will chip away irreparably at the city’s public education capacity.

“Everyone is working really, really hard to do right by young people. But it often feels like policymakers’ understanding of the battle is very different from that of the teachers and students. Decisions get made in back rooms that have an effect on lots of people who are trying really hard,” said Avashia.

At Young Achievers, Dunbar is glad the school provides at least some basic supplies such as white paper and pencils; other schools can’t even do that much. She has been thinking all summer, she said, about how to organize her classroom to help train her first-graders to be as independent as possible. Still, the path forward is worrisome.

“It’s never good to take money from students who need it most. You’ll see a ripple effect. The budget cuts will have repercussions for some time to come,” she said. “I’m in at 7:30 and out at 6 p.m., and I’m really passionate about my work. I am a BPS graduate and my heart is there, but these cuts make it so much harder for us to stay in this field. Our students deserve better.”