Thursday, June 21, 2018
Education

Extra help for students may ebb as Hillsborough cuts support teachers

PLANT CITY — Jeannette Teeden started work on a recent Monday with a 6:45 a.m. tutoring session.

Three hours later she was standing on a chair in the Durant High School media center, comparing the SAT reading test to "a bad date who just keeps talking to you" — and telling students how they can join the conversation.

From what to wear on test day to how to spot a trick question, her advice can help students land the score they need for a high school diploma.

But while the Hillsborough County School District is determined to help more students graduate, jobs like Teeden's are being cut back as officials work through the painful process of balancing the budget.

As a reading coach, Teeden, 36, has been referred to by district brass as an "all star" who needs to be quarterbacking a classroom instead of working in a supporting role. Resource teachers, success coaches and academic intervention specialists fall into that category as well.

Before the month is over, as many as 200 will find themselves in new roles.

The Gibson Consulting Group, which is recommending ways to pare spending, estimated Hillsborough has a surplus of 1,031 teachers, relative to other large districts. Some of the imbalance comes from years of hiring more teachers as the district adhered more strictly to state class-size limits than many of its peers. But coaches and specialists are considered part of the excess too.

At Durant, that group also includes Michelle Scolaro, 44, who works as a "success coach," a relatively new term for what used to be known as a "dropout prevention specialist." By either name, it describes someone who gets involved when a student is struggling, or not showing up.

She and Teeden have been classroom teachers before, and said they would have no problem becoming classroom teachers again.

But at what cost?

"I worry about two things," Scolaro said. "Our teachers and our students."

• • •

Like most high schools, Durant has a multi-tiered system of supports that includes counselors and professionals who deal with students' multiple social and academic needs.

Teeden focuses on how to get kids caught up in their reading skills. Fewer than 42 percent of Durant's sophomores passed the Florida Standards Assessment in English language arts last year, an 11-point drop from 2014-15.

The staff sprang into action. Recognizing that the SAT and ACT tests are often easier than the FSA, and can be substituted for diploma purposes, they urged students to sign up.

"We pushed the heck out of SAT," Teeden said. Funding was available for one free test, and more if kids met the income guidelines.

It's a strategy that is working around the district, as the number of students getting diplomas with alternative tests more than doubled between 2015 and 2016.

Why the need?

Teeden says the FSA test is partly to blame.

But she recognizes the other causes. Children are more oriented towards electronic devices, and even math, than sitting with a book. That's true even of her two young sons, she said.

Independent reading — simply allowing a child to get lost in a book — fell out of favor during the reform years led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, when teachers were evaluated on whether students could demonstrate what they learned in class.

Other causes included poverty and learning disabilities. Districtwide, more than 31,000 students scored in the lowest level on FSA reading tests last year.

Teeden leads teacher training sessions that get to the heart of skills that trip kids up on the FSA. She plans activities for "reading homerooms" filled with struggling readers. She works one-on-one with students at lunch and before school.

And in sessions such as Monday's, she gives test-taking advice. Preview the passages before you start, she tells them. Bang out the easy ones first. Watch for the answer choice that is half right. "If it's half right, it's wrong," she had them repeat three times.

Scolaro, also a former reading teacher, gets involved with obstacles of a different kind: A student doesn't get along with a teacher, or with another kid, or is just socially awkward. Attendance lags and the student finds himself at risk of dropping off or finishing school with a "certificate of completion," a piece of paper with little value.

One year, Scolaro made a list of students with poor attendance and invited their families to a meeting. "There was this one girl, her father did not have shoes," she said. "But they came to the meeting. They came to connect to the school."

In a system without them, Scolaro and Teeden say, more families would struggle to keep their kids on track. "If I wasn't in the system, I would be very confused about what my child may or may not need toward graduation," Scolaro said.

They described one former student who required nearly every service the school had to offer. She had problems outside school. She had trouble processing what she read. Determined to earn her diploma, she took seven reading tests before she finally passed, just weeks before graduation day.

Teeden and Scolaro had her speak with other struggling students, and they shared their frustrations openly with her.

Today, the student attends Polk State College and plans to be a nurse. "I feel like we're going to have a life-long relationship with her," Teeden said.

• • •

When the school year began in August, Hillsborough had 62 success coaches, 206 reading coaches and hundreds more in other coaching, resource and specialist positions.

Since then, some have voluntarily filled classroom vacancies. Largely due to the uncertain times, many wanted to make sure they found something suitable and close to home.

A district committee is meeting, and conversations are now under way between the district and the teachers' union to arrange the first large group of transfers.

Teeden, who is in her eighth year as a coach, and Scolaro, now in her seventh year, said they would be fine in classroom jobs.

"We feel that we've learned so much," Teeden said. "But just don't say this is not going to affect children."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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