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Updated: Wednesday, 27 Feb 2013, 1:15 PM EST
Published : Tuesday, 26 Feb 2013, 9:56 PM EST
NEWAYGO, Mich. (WOOD) - Here is a math problem: when schools reduce certified staff, are class sizes bigger, smaller or stay the same?
"We've reduced certified staff the last several years before my tenure here," said Newaygo Public Schools Superintendent Peg Mathis. "As you reduce certified staff, you have bigger class sizes. It's a math problem, really."
And it's a math problem nearly every district is trying to solve.
Amanda Ellsay's son, Stephaun Benhan, sometimes needs a little extra adult help. When he asks questions, "it's kind of embarrassing and when you get an answer wrong, it's embarrassing, too," he said. It's embarrassing, he said, because there are nearly 30 sets of pre-teen eyes who see his mistakes, and it would be mitigated by having another adult in the classroom he could talk with privately.
"I know that they have about 28 kids in a classroom and for one teacher, I think that's a lot," Ellsay told Target 8.
She was surprised to learn Newaygo is one of several West Michigan school districts that offer teachers with big classes a choice on how to handle it.
The plan: either have a paraprofessional come in and help with the overload or pay the teacher a little extra per extra pupil.
"They (school administrators) should make it mandatory the parents should know about (this program)," she said. "They should focus on helping the student more than on taking the money for themselves."
If the teachers choose the money the first year this option is available, they'd get an extra $40 per student per day.
"We have some teachers, particularly in the subject of English, they have more paperwork, more essays and things they're grading," Superintendent Mathis said. "So the pay is not much, but it is a little stipend for what's over the contractual amount."
In Rockford, elementary teachers don't have a choice: bigger classes mean it's time for a parapro to come in.
"It's definitely a whole different organizational aspect to it when you're looking at a few more kids," said teacher Cristina Tendero-Scott. "Even though three doesn't sound like a lot, it's just a lot more energy in all different areas."
Her parapro is Susan Pellerito, a stay-at-home mom until the opportunity to work in school popped up in October 2012. Pellerito has a bachelor's degree and kids of her own in Rockford schools. She said she loves being able to help those kids who need extra attention.
For Tendero-Scott, having a parapro is extra work managing another person. "But the hope is you are working as a team and you kind of get those management systems in place. I know Susan is good to go and knows the system and knows when to step in and monitor what we need to get done."
She would also rather have the extra person than the extra money.
"Having extra money, sure, that would be nice. But it so doesn't help with kind of the needs of the classroom and the stresses as a teacher I might go through, and having a second hand in there knowing what's going on is more of a help to me."
Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Shibler said having a parapro is good, but it only covers up a wound that didn't exist just a few years ago.
"My philosophy has always been what's in the best interests of the students, and the best interest of the student in my opinion is providing a parapro in the classroom," Shibler told Target 8. "Quite frankly, I'm getting tired of having cut after cut after cut in funding, and then being told at the same time we're going to hold you accountable here here and here -- but we're gonna give you less money to do that."
State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, the former chair of the House Education Committee, told Target 8 she didn't know this was an issue until Target 8 brought it to her attention.
"I think it's important to note when we talk to schools, when they talk about the funding that's available to them, we need to make sure that we tell our schools that education is one of our top priorities here at the State, that students have what they need to learn," Lyons said.
She didn't know why the State doesn't have mandated class sizes, but suggested different circumstances at different districts are likely the reason.
When asked if, as a parent, she would rather have her kids in a classroom with a parapro or where the teacher is getting a little bit extra money, Lyons paused.
"As a parent, I guess it would just depend on the teacher. I have a tremendous amount of faith in my kids teacher, but we also have a lot of parental involvement (at her children's school)."
She also said she is not sure it's even a problem.
"If it is and our students are not getting the attention that they need, I do think we need to address that."
But her freshman colleague, Rep. Collene Lamonte, said she doesn't need more research to know it's a problem.
"We look at classroom sizes as something that school districts are allowed to choose, yet when it
comes to day care situations, we regulate how many children a day care provider can have under their care at any one time," said Lamonte, a former Muskegon high school teacher. "We don't do that in schools, and to me it's just common sense."
She told Target 8 all of her science classes had more than 30 students and she did get a stipend for the extra work, but she used that money to buy extra supplies for those extra students.
"You can ask any teacher and they would be more than willing to give back that money if it went to hiring more teachers to reduce their classroom sizes," she said. "I think we need to get away from Band-Aids."
Newaygo Superintendent Mathis rejects the notion that teachers choose money over students.
"I'm saddened that people would think that because the staff here is nothing but students in the best interests of the students."
She is not sure the Newaygo district will continue to give teachers the option.
"I don't know that people want the choice. Some would rather just be told what's going to happen, so I don't know that. That remains to be seen."
But it is clear to parent Amanda Ellsay.
"They shouldn't give the teacher the choice. They should leave it up to the parents."