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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 1.13.11

Teachers or Tutors?

Will budget woes make tutors the only way Eugene kids get an education?

By Alex Zielinski

Its halfway through the school year, and South Eugene High School Spanish teacher Lynette Williams is already fed up with the lack of school funding.û

With an estimated $22 million 4J budget deficit on the horizon for the 2011-12 school year and smaller cuts being made every month, Williams sees her classroom and others struggling to meet basic requirements.û

Kim Pash-Bell
Josh Hirschstein

øWe teachers are doing the best we can, but theres a tipping point, and we have absolutely hit that tipping point," Williams says.û

øThis isnt a teacher issue, but a state issue," Williams says. øAt the same time that the state is drastically cutting the budget, you have them imposing stricter regulations on grade level requirements. How is that supposed to balance out?"

However, instead of promoting a switch to private schools, a concept that some have advocated for, Williams believes that another area of the education sector can keep public schools afloat: tutors. û

øIm for a combination of keeping students in public schools and offering inexpensive tutoring to supplement for what cant be covered in the classroom," Williams says.û

For those who can afford it, tutoring has become a more prominent option as teachers and parents alike see classroom standards plummet due to the shrinking state budget. While some schools offer free assistance, the price of commercial tutoring leaves many aspiring students behind.û

The shortage of in-class help due to higher student-to-teacher ratios has also resulted in a cycle of across-the-board performance deflation. Williams upper-level Spanish class has remained a teachable size, but she notices SEHS math classes, in particular, growing up to 52 students.û

øWith a class that large, theres no way to get to a students needs," says Williams, who has watched her students entering her class with dropping levels of education as the cuts increase.

Paying for Public Education?

In response to a projected $240 million loss in state funding for the 2011-12 school year, Eugenes 4J and Bethel school districts are preparing for massive cuts to their already tight budgets.

George Russell, 4J superintendent, outlined the most recent budget cut recommendations at a Dec. 8 board meeting. His estimated $22 million budget shortfall, around 15 percent of the upcoming school years general fund budget, leaves little room for flexibility. In conjunction with closing five district schools, Russell suggested consolidating schools, leading to increased student populations. He also recommended cutting six more school days, and creating a total of 12 staff unpaid furlough days from the 2011-12 schedule. Russell expects to lay off 62 teachers and 43 administrative staff members, further crowding those already packed classrooms.

For Russell and most school districts across the county and state, minimizing resources appears to be the solution to the looming financial deficits.

SEHS provides free tutoring by upperclassmen and UO students, but Williams says the best tutors, whom she recommends to her students parents, come at a high price. An average tutor charges from $25 to $50 an hour, which she says creates discrimination within the classroom.

øIts all about the have and have nots," Williams says. øThe gap has widened between those who can afford or have time to schedule tutors and those who cant."

And she doesnt face the consequences of unbalanced tutoring only in the classroom. Williams has two teenagers at home and finds it necessary to hire regular tutors to keep her children on track to college. She says she feels guilty at times knowing that so many potentially bright students will fall behind since they cant afford such assistance.û

ûøWith increased budget cuts, affordable tutors and in-class assistants must become a necessity," Williams says.

Williams is not alone in her observations.

Kim Pash-Bell, director of Eugenes Tutoring Tree, says she thinks most parents who dont bring their struggling child to be tutored do so because of the price.û

øIts a vicious cycle," Pash-Bell says. øThose who can afford tutoring will come and benefit and those who are unable to afford it leave their kids without enough resources."

The students who do come to Pash-Bell for help need it more than ever, she says. Larger class sizes lead to tension and neglect in the classroom, so more and more students are falling through the cracks.

øI can tell that individual needs are not always being met," says Pash-Bell, who tutors mostly elementary school students. øThere are big holes in the information being taught. I just want to help."

Pash-Bell often contacts teachers directly to offer her assistance. Recently, the teachers have become less and less resistant to her help and are open to any aid she can provide.û

For now, though, Pash-Bell says its too early to tell whether schools will lean heavily on tutors to balance out the weakened budget.û


Grade Deflation

Other tutoring programs have already seen a definite change in business that contradicts Pash-Bells thoughts on the issue, but still bodes well for the state of K-12 education.

Josh Hirschstein, director of Lane Tutoring Service (LTS), says that the recent budget cuts have had a negative influence on his business.û

ûøThe pattern is opposite than you would expect: When schools decline, tutoring declines," Hirschstein says. øPeople come to tutoring when grades are poor, and they arent right now."û

He explains that since teachers expectations have lowered, due to the inability to provide for a packed classroom, the standard of education has simultaneously dropped. Students dont need extra help when they are expected to perform at lower standards.

Hirschstein, whos been tutoring in Eugene for 25 years, sees this as a local problem, rather than a state issue.û

øWe expect the government to support schools, but they cant. Our community has to step up and help end this detrimental cycle of short-term thinking and replace it with long-term investment in our education system" Hirschstein says. øWe have such potential in this town. It frustrates me a great deal."

Hirschstein, who also has children in high school, says he worries that Eugenes pride is on the line, as SAT scores and school ratings may drop.

At LTS, Hirschsteins customers, ranging from 6th to 12th grades, are mostly those in the Talented and Gifted Program, a sector of the public school system that he says has been øput on the shelf."

øThese kids are screwed," Hirschstein says. øI can tell that the education that they are receiving is below them, and we try our best to make up for it, but its tough. The gap between what theyre learning and what they need to know is growing too quickly."

Hirschstein says that students who are served at LTS are struggling the most with math and science, the two subjects known for large class sizes.û

While he is dedicated to helping supplement public schools, Hirschstein says that tutoring will never replace classroom education. Contrary to Williams, he is certain that private schools will be the education of the future if budget cuts continue to threaten the quality of public schools.

øThe bottom line is that when you cut back school funding, you cut back the opportunity to learn," Hirschstein says. øWere all watching public education diminish and waiting for some kind of leadership, but its just not there."


Whats to Come

Despite the dreary outlook, SEHS Principal Randy Bernstein says he feels the school is prepared for what the future holds.

øWere already doing what we can in a lot of ways now," Bernstein says. øWell need to do more next year, once the larger cuts are made, but weve been planning for this for a while."

Aside from the volunteer student tutors, Bernstein says that many parents have been offering their time this year and in the future. While this is a vital source of help, Bernstein says that there are some tasks parents legally wouldnt be able to do, especially if their child is in the class. He says theyd like to follow the path of North Eugene High, which recruits retired teachers to volunteer their time.û

øWith cuts, the one resource well have to look at more seriously is volunteering," Bernstein says. øBut for now, its all preliminary discussion."

Teacher Lynette Williams, whos expecting scores of teachers to be cut from the 4J District by next school year, is looking for a more long-term response.

While Bernstein hopes for in-class involvement at SEHS, Williams ultimately turns to the community for support.û

One such community effort is the discussion of implementing a tax (See EW cover story Sept. 16, and several stories since).

øThe public has to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to what they want out of the education system, and has to be willing to pay the cost of it," Williams says. øWhile tutors will help, we need a bigger change at a larger level. Were leaving a generation behind. Is that what our community wants?" û û û û û û û