Thursday, May 24, 2018
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District tries new math, turn minus into a plus

LITCHFIELD, Mich. - Administrators wanted Litchfield Public Schools marketed as the district for students to choose in Hillsdale County.

That was hard to do with a $300,000 deficit, looming layoffs, and large class sizes.

“We needed to get our budget back in line. Looking at things the traditional way was not very effective for us,” Superintendent John Chandler said. “We were looking at large class sizes in the elementary. We were looking at layoffs. It did not look good for our district.”

So Mr. Chandler came up with a plan, one that would require teachers to sacrifice some of the perks they fought for in previous contracts but one that might save the district from more job cuts. After much discussion, the 41 teachers agreed.

They would clean their own classrooms to save money on janitorial staff. They'd give up their planning time and supervise recess. Teachers in the high school would teach art and physical education in the elementary, freeing teachers in that building to be in the regular classrooms. Two librarians would return to the regular classroom.

The goal: to have no more than 15 students in kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms, where studies have shown children need the most individual attention.

School leaders hope the move will raise test scores and help boost student performance. They know it helped them out of a financial mess. They also plan to use the unique move as a marketing tool, to attract more students to the district.

In Michigan, students can attend other public schools in the same or adjacent county without paying tuition, under the Schools of Choice program. This has prompted competition for students among neighboring school districts.

To help get the school district out of the red, there will be only one principal and one counselor for the district. Several teachers' aides were laid off, and plans to hire others were put on hold. The custodial staff was reduced and three part-time high school teachers will remain on layoff.

The changes will take place in the fall. Previously, some classes have had 17 students, but some have had 25 or 26. The problem is they don't get the attention they need to do well in school.

“This took zero selling. It's so much better than what we were doing,” Mr. Chandler said.

Mr. Chandler and the teachers' union said they did not know of other contracts in Michigan where teachers have made such concessions.

Typically, the most pressing issues for the teachers have been to have more planning time, which meant spending less time doing nonteaching duties like supervising recess.

“They really put the students first,” Mr. Chandler said. What we're talking about is monumental change.”

Cheri Smith, a second-grade teacher and co-president of the union, said teachers always have known that smaller class sizes mean better education. The move could help them too because handling 15 students is easier and more effective than 25.

“It's just that too much classroom management goes on. It takes forever to get through a lesson,” she said.

The Michigan Education Association, the teachers' union, did not have language put in the contract agreeing to the change. Instead, it signed a letter of agreement so if something isn't working it can be changed.

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