LINCOLN MIDDLE SCHOOL — The day before Lincoln Middle School students lined up to get their schedules for the 2011-12 academic year, the word came down: There would be no elective classes for seventh graders.
The announcement was also brought before the Lincoln PTA. Parents tried to understand what could explain the loss, which would deprive students of the ability to take extra classes in the 7:30 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. timeslot before the first official period of the day.
E-mails flew, saying that the school day had been truncated.
That a.m. period is used for physical education, student council, yearbook, art, music and support classes for struggling students, Suzanne Webb, the principal at Lincoln, wrote in an e-mail.
Each student at the middle school level is entitled to a six-period day. When the school district was flush with cash, prior to the massive state budget cuts seen in the last several years, students could expect to take one or two more periods if they wanted to take extra electives and an a.m. class.
The reductions show a continuing trend at Lincoln and throughout the school district, where school sites have had to contend with the loss of teachers, making it ever more difficult for Webb and her administrative team to match the master class schedule to student demand.
In the previous 2010-11 school year, Lincoln was able to offer three a.m. classes, down from four the previous year. That reduction came from the loss of five full-time teachers.
That led to the elimination of a.m. classes for sixth graders, support classes in reading and math and technology classes for both sixth and seventh grades.
This year, Lincoln once again saw a reduction, this time a much smaller proportion of three-fifths of a “teacher,” resulting from a drop in enrollment.
That awkward fraction comes from the fact that teachers are measured as “full time equivalent” employees, or FTE.
One full-time teacher works five periods of the day, so a reduction of less than one FTE may mean that certain periods must be cut, and one or multiple teachers’ classes reduced.
In this case, Webb wrote, three-fifths of an FTE meant that three class sections had to go to fit within the allotment given to Lincoln by the district.
Lincoln lost the staffing allotment because it enrolled 77 fewer students than the year before. That’s scant comfort to the remainder of the Lincoln crew.
According to a staffing report delivered at last Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, every class at Lincoln, with the exception of sixth and seventh grade math and pre-Algebra, averages between 30 and 34 students to every teacher.
The task of creating a master schedule falls exclusively to the principal and his or her administrative team, although Webb made sure that the district office was apprised of the process.
“Beginning in May, my leadership team worked on building a master schedule that could match teacher credentials with class offerings and student requests,” Webb wrote. “We first had to look at our class offerings and figure out what should be eliminated.”
A number of students wanted to take two elective classes on top of an a.m. class.
Webb and her team made the decision to give priority to academic electives and music classes.
“Given those parameters, we had 80 eighth graders who fit the requirements and only 16 seventh graders,” Webb said.
Two a.m. classes for eighth graders — physical education and Algebra — made the cut.
Classes not offered this year that made it last year included student council, seventh grade a.m. physical education and a course in exploratory rotation.
“I am sad that this year’s seventh graders do not have the opportunity for an a.m. class, especially since they were sixth graders when we had to eliminate the sixth grade a.m. class,” Webb wrote. “But I do believe that we have the best schedule possible given our FTEs, student requests and teacher credential availability.”
It comes down to money, said Sally Chou, chief academic officer with the school district.
“We’re tightening up assignments and allocations,” she said. “We don’t have that much money now, and we have to be very careful.”
Under those circumstances, extras, like a.m. classes, are the first to go.
For one, they’re easier to move around than other classes.
Each school has different needs, and uses teachers in different ways, which can impact how a schedule is put together.
For instance, the situation at a school like Lincoln is complicated by a practice called “coring,” which means that four teachers have a specific group of children that they work with.
That affects how teachers and specific class sections can be moved around and ties the hands of administrators trying to create a balanced schedule.
Early morning classes are also not necessary to moving forward in academics, meaning that the cuts do not jeopardize students’ schedules, Chou said.
“We don’t take this lightly,” she said. “We don’t say let’s just cut this out. What we do is make this work for the benefit of all kids, not just yours or mine.”
Parents are disappointed, but understand both the district’s limitations and their own, said Lincoln’s PTA President Karen Gardner.
“This is something we can’t fundraise for because it’s teacher salaries,” Gardner said. “We’re hamstrung. There’s nothing we can do about it.”