Teachers Association expresses concerns about staffing shortages

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Hopkinton Teachers Association president Becky Abate spoke at the Jan. 2 School Committee meeting.
PHOTO/HCAM

During the Jan. 2 School Committee meeting, the president of the Hopkinton Teachers Association (HTA) voiced her concerns about staffing in the district before the FY21 budget was set to be presented at a public forum on Jan. 9.

Over the past five years Hopkinton has seen unprecedented enrollment growth, with more than 500 students coming into the district. That rate of enrollment is expected to continue, with a projected increase of an additional 1,000 students over the next 10 years.

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Reading a lengthy prepared statement to the School Committee, HTA president Becky Abate spoke about what the HTA members felt was “a more accurate depiction of our needs and the concerns of the Hopkinton teachers as we try to maintain the excellence of Hopkinton Schools in the face of what we believe are very real threats to the quality of education for our students.”

Each of the individual schools in the district are feeling the impact of the enrollment growth, said Abate, who said that there already was a staffing shortage before the recent surge of new students.

At Marathon Elementary School, Abate said that many of the youngest learners in the district come to the school as unknowns.

“I hesitate to talk about class sizes because, again, it’s not just about the numbers of students, it’s about their needs,” she said. “But I must admit that it is alarming to hear that there are frequently 23 and 24 students in our lower elementary classrooms.”

Abate said that many of the students, especially in first grade, require reading services but don’t yet have access to the services because of the “staggering drop” in staffing of both reading specialists and paraprofessionals.

“Without enough paras and counselors, teachers are stretched in a way that does not benefit our students, and they are seeing the impact of reduced support reveal itself in student behaviors,” she said.

At Elmwood Elementary School, Abate said that the teachers are seeing an uptick in the diverse learning needs as well as in the social and emotional needs of their students.

“Teachers in Elmwood feel the stress of needing to not only teach curriculum but to serve as data collectors, social workers and counselors as well,” she said. “No teacher would ever suggest that our job is to only teach reading, writing and arithmetic, we are here to teach the whole child. However, there reaches a tipping point when the social emotional needs are so high that the focus on academics is hindered, especially when outside supports are also stretched or diminished.”

Space is at a premium and class sizes are pushing close to 25 students at Hopkins School, said Abate.

“Hopkins teachers want you to know their concerns are not about the number of students, but about the needs of students,” Abate said. “Hopkins teachers, counselors and specialists don’t want to provide anything less than excellence for the students of Hopkinton but have real concerns that this is and will continue to be the case without adequate staffing.”

At the middle school, recent staffing additions were more about restoring positions that were reduced prior, rather than alleviating the increase in enrollment.

“This year we lost two core academic teachers whose positions were not filled and next year we will still be down one in history,” said Abate, who is a Grade 8 English teacher. “This has had a deleterious effect on the tried and true ‘team teaching’ model that HMS and countless other high-performing middle schools utilize.”

Just like the middle school, said Abate, the high school is a place where basic class size calculations based on enrollment don’t tell the full story.

“Next year’s budget will not allow for a social emotional learning director, which would have helped to alleviate and even prevent some of the mental health challenges of Hopkinton High School students,” she said. “Teachers remark on how they have never seen students exhibit such heartbreaking symptoms of anxiety and depression.”

Another issue the district is facing is the growing number of English Learner (EL) students.

“Our EL teaching staff is stretched so thin, some with caseloads of as many as 40 students,” she said. “EL teachers have no time in their schedules to meet with content area or classroom teachers to provide support to them as they work with the very individualized needs of our EL population. To address staffing concerns, we have EL teachers spread across multiple buildings and we have non-licensed tutors working with these students. All of this results in students not meeting language goals and only adds to the stress all teachers feel.”

In an interview after the meeting, chair Meena Bharath indicated it was the first time the School Committee had heard from the HTA.

“In the face of the growth we are experiencing as a community, the School Committee is committed to keep a keen eye on the various and changing needs of our students, our teachers, our staff and our administration,” Bharath said. “I deeply respect Ms. Abate’s and all the teachers’ sentiments to continue to provide excellence as our district expands. Identification and fulfillment of the district’s educational needs is a work in progress, and something we will continue to work on with our superintendent and all stakeholders, including our teachers.”

In a follow-up interview, Abate voiced support for the administration and School Committee, adding: “As always, the HTA looks forward to working as partners with both the superintendent and School Committee to ensuring Hopkinton remains as strong as ever.”