A pair of first-grade teachers at Ridgeview Elementary recently told two visiting Michigan legislators about the stresses of teaching under strained budgets, and the increasing demands on teachers to serve greater student needs.
Meeting in a roomful of administrators and teachers, Monica Myers and Megan Taylor gave state Sen. Peter MacGregor and Rep. Rob VerHeulen a frank overview of the district’s many challenges. They described how teachers have taken on many responsibilities previously delegated to support staff, as budget cuts have eliminated programs that would otherwise help students with behavior and mental health issues and the stresses of poverty.
“I was a little embarrassed, but I started to cry because I’m passionate about what I do,” Myers said later of her talk with the lawmakers. “I have a real tug on my heart with those kids who bring in psychiatric or psychological baggage that gets in their way.”
Myers told of working with a student whose troublesome behavior included throwing things off of desks. She said she has to balance such students’ individual needs while still teaching an entire class.
“They’re doing everything,” Principal Marialyce Zeerip said of her teachers. “They’re washing kids’ clothes. They’re having them brush their teeth. It’s just endless.”
More Cutbacks, Greater Needs
Zeerip said she asked the school board to invite legislators to the district as a way to address issues related to school funding. The state House and Senate are currently hashing out a school budget for the 2017-18 school year, including haggling over a controversial Senate vote to move $100 million in retirement funding to the State Aid Fund.
Budget-reduction impacts at Ridgeview included the elimination of an assistant principal, the outsourcing of custodial staff, cuts to secretarial, lunch/recess and reading support staff, classroom budget restrictions and the reduction of a full-time social worker to half-time.
The school’s free and reduced lunch rate has climbed in recent years to 56 percent, she added.
“In a low-income situation there’s usually high stress,” Zeerip said. “Extras you want to provide for your kid that might not be extras.”
While students enter her classroom with higher needs than ever before, Myers said, every student deserves to be supported at school. “If you peel back those behaviors, you find the kid inside,” she said.
Taylor said she was glad to have her voice heard after sharing her own classroom experiences with MacGregor and VerHeulen.
“They were both very positive and very receptive and seemed to have a pretty good idea of some of the challenges we’re facing,” Taylor said. “They were enlightened to hear (about) the population we see in Sparta.
“They seem to have a good idea of the problem, they just don’t have a good idea of the solution. I don’t know that there really is one yet.”
The legislators also toured Ridgeview and the high school.
“I was highly impressed by the dedication of both the educators and the administrators at Ridgeview Elementary and Sparta High School,” VerHeulen said in an email. “Their commitment to the students they serve provides an example for other schools to follow.”
Senator Peter MacGregor