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District beefs up staff, keeps class sizes small

Covid relief funds go toward increasing staff

Sparta — The 32 new staff members in attendance at orientation this fall illustrated how the district is using its federally mandated COVID relief funds. 

The new teachers and support staff will help keep class sizes as small as possible, said district administrators.

The funds, influxes of federal cash to cover costs related to educating students during the pandemic, have deadlines to be spent over the next three academic years. They total approximately $15 million for Kent County schools in phase one, $75 million in phase two and $174 million in phase three, said Kent Intermediate School District Financial Director, Kevin Phillips. 

Sparta teacher Jeana Sixbury landed a second-grade teaching position just a week before the school year started

Sparta’s share is $283,303 in phase one, with a spending deadline of Sept. 30, 2022; $1.32 million with a spending deadline of Sept. 30, 2023; and $2.96 million with a spending deadline of Sept. 30 2024. 

There is a great deal of leeway on how the dollars can be pent, but they are intended to address learning loss due to the pandemic, said Phillips.

Sparta is using a portion of its allocation to add staff. The goal, said Superintendent Pete Bush, is to have enough staff members to keep class sizes small, with the goals of mitigating lost learning as well as maximizing social distancing. 

With annual retirement or staff changes averaging about seven or eight per year, the district should be able to retain all new staff positions after relief funds are exhausted, he said.

‘Students in quarantine and in virtual classes just don’t get that instant feedback that happens naturally in a classroom. Time spent in small groups couldn’t be replicated with virtual classrooms.’ —  Heather Guerra, Sparta Ridgeview Elementary Principal

—  Heather Guerra, Sparta Ridgeview Elementary Principal

Additional classes were added at Ridgeview Elementary, the district’s kindergarten through second-grade building, which has a record 10 kindergarten classrooms, plus eight first-grade and nine second-grade classrooms. A fourth-grade section was also added at Appleview Elementary, the third- through fifth-grade building, the week school started after final enrollment numbers were determined.

Related: Districts plan for COVID relief funds spending

One new staff member, Sparta 2015 graduate Jeana Sixbury, who student-taught at Appleview Elementary last school year, happily accepted a second grade position just a week before school doors opened. 

“I wanted to work in my hometown and have always loved this district,” she said. “It is so interesting, I now get to work with some of the teachers that I had when I went here.”

Classroom aide Jordon Crowl plays along with students as they attempt to figure out what denomination of dollar bill they are searching for

Boosting Staff, Boosting Learning

Keeping classes around 20 students is a high priority, said Ridgeview Principal Heather Guerra. 

“Learning to read is so important and while our families did such a good job during the school shut down and (virtually), it is never the same for students, especially for students, who did not have an onsite coach,” said Guerra. 

When children are first attempting to put sounds together and see them in words, they rely on facial recognition, so maintaining small class sizes is particularly essential at this learning stage, she said.

‘The more we can offer one-to-one time the better, especially when it comes to reading and writing. It seems that many second graders are significantly behind where they would usually be. During virtual school, they rarely had to put pen to paper, even if they were hearing the same lessons.’

—Jeana Sixbury, second-grade teacher

“Students in quarantine and in virtual classes just don’t get that instant feedback that happens naturally in a classroom,” said Guerra. Also children at this age are not independent enough to translate what they need to do through a screen, but rather, they learn by immediate feedback. “Time spent in small groups couldn’t be replicated with virtual classrooms,” she said.

While teachers are seeing students make great strides, they also see ongoing struggles. “The more we can offer one-to-one time, the better,” Sixbury said. “Especially when it comes to reading and writing, it seems that many second graders are significantly behind where they would usually be. During virtual school, they rarely had to put pen to paper, even if they were hearing the same lessons,” she said.

Jordon Crowl helps eighth-grader Jordan McKay

Meeting Needs of All 

The district also has earmarked some of the federal dollars, to add staff in other key areas, said Bush.

Every Sparta building for the first time has its own full-time Kent School Services  Network coordinator. The KSSN staff helps identify and connect families with needed community resources and support services, such as food pantries, health clinics or counselors. Additionally, the district added another nurse and a fourth full-time social worker. 

Children attending Ridgeview, who are English learners, also will get a boost from new staff. 

“We are so excited to now have a full time EL teacher,” said Guerra. “That is such a big help dealing with students and parents with language issues. It will help us be better at meeting the needs of our Hispanic population.” 

Jordon Crowl, a 2021 Sparta graduate, has returned to the district as a classroom aide. He works with students who have special needs at both the middle and high schools. 

“I help when students need a little extra academic help, take them aside for a minute or two to help them cool off when necessary and just be on hand to assist them if they need something,” he said.

While a student at Sparta, Jordon participated in Unified Sports, which pairs students with special needs and those in general education to compete in any number of sports. Jordon played both basketball and football and is back on the team to help encourage or assist when necessary. “I still get to play, but I also step in as a coach when they need me,” he said.

Having additional classroom aides is always a bonus for the teachers, he said.

Spending time in small group reading lessons is extra important this year following in-person schooling interruptions

What’s Next

The district is in the process of examining  programming and day-to-day curriculum and materials.

“We know this is an opportunity for curriculum updates that we have had to put on hold during the last number of years,” said Bush.

The district is currently in the process of evaluating all other potential needs.

New classroom aide Jordon Crowl lends a hand to help Ally Mead in the lunch line
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Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio

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