Brick Township is one of a handful of school districts in New Jersey to receive grant funding intended to boost test scores of students in grades most negatively affected by pandemic-era lockdowns and closures.
The district will receive $614,000 in the form of “High Impact Tutoring Grant” that will provide tutoring and similar services to students whose education was determined by a formula to be most interrupted by the Covid-19 lockdowns. Simultaneously, however, the district is suffering from a shortage of teachers – especially substitutes and special education staff – after being forced to shed more than 250 staff members over the past five years due to state funding cuts.
The paradoxical problem is causing district officials to redouble their efforts to recruit temporary staff who also hold certificates in special education and certain subject areas – a difficult task since the vast majority of those with proper certifications hold full-time jobs. And while the state is providing the grant funding for the remainder of the 2023-24 school year, the Brick district will face the prospect of further staff reductions since state funding is due to be cut again in next year’s budget.
The good news-bad news scenario drew both excitement and frustration from officials at a recent Board of Education meeting.
“I have a child who started kindergarten during Covid,” said board member Frances DiBenedictis. “It was chaos, and those kids just had a lot of learning loss, no matter how amazing parents were and worked with them, there was only so much we could do. This is an amazing thing for all our students.”
Alyce Anderson, the district’s curriculum director, said the grant will focus on students in grades three and four this year since those students were the most severely-affected by learning loss during the pandemic. While the tutoring program will follow strict guidelines set forth by the state, Anderson said the Brick district will utilize data from test scores such as the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments to identify children who are in need of assistance meeting “mastery” in the areas of mathematics and language. In state education parlance, students who do not receive sufficient scores are referred to as “approaching” mastery of the subjects.
“What has happened, because of the pandemic, is that so many of our students have gaps and holes in their foundational skills,” said Anderson. “Many of our students are referred for basic skills instruction. There are a lot of students who just need a little bit of support to get them to mastery.”
While Brick has been selected as one of the districts that will receive the tutoring aid, officials must submit an implementation plan to Trenton for final approval. The tutoring program is expected to begin after the new year, with the district already trying to recruit certified teachers – perhaps those who are retired and willing to return to the classroom temporarily – to lead the students. The tutoring will match three students with a teacher.
The tutoring can be held before school or after school, but part of it must happen during the day “without missing core academic subjects,” said Anderson, adding that the tutoring will be “embedded” in existing math and language classes.
“We will be posting for some additional staff to help us meet the scheduling needs of each building and using the data from [our assessments] to help identify those students and really pinpoint the skills they need to reach mastery,” she said.
In Need of Teachers
After suffering years of state funding cuts under what has become known as “S-2,” a law which slashed funding from Brick and similar districts over the past six years, belt-tightening has forced the district to shed 250 staff members, Superintendent Thomas Farrell said. While teaching staff were the last to be cut, the budget crisis has led to higher class sizes at a time when many students require more personal attention than before given learning loss during the pandemic.
“We have gone to wits end,” said Farrell. “It’s not a matter of pay. There is a huge shortage, especially on certification. We’ve been working with our administrators and academic coaches to pitch in and submit support.”
The issue, he said, is that many of the positions required for long-term substitutes and those funded by grants require the temporary staff members to be certified in special education or a particular area of study. While many of the district’s substitute teachers have four-year college degrees, it does not suffice, though legislation at the state level is pending that could make it easier for districts to grant waivers when needed.
“At the end of the day, this is not a problem that’s going away any time soon,” Farrell said. “We get waivers very often – too many in my opinion – and I’ve seen numbers from districts that have three times the number we do.”
The reality, he said, is that teachers with sufficient certification are usually employed full-time already. The district has also raised its substitute salaries as well as its teachers’ salaries overall in the latest contract with the local teachers’ union.
“Those teachers are working, and even if we put them higher on the [salary] guide, it would not matter,” Farrell said, since they are not searching for new jobs. “We have so many subs and [paraprofessionals] that have four-year degrees, but do not have certifications in certain classes.”
The district is also lacking enough psychologists and behavior analysts, he said, however two board-certified behaviorists were hired at a Board of Education meeting this week.
“We are looking for certified special ed teachers – we have a lot of special ed teachers on leave and we need to fill those positions,” said Jennifer Grenger, Director of Special Services for the district.
Farrell said Brick is working with ESS, a firm that specializes in educational staffing, to recruit for the open positions for substitute teachers, including those with certification. Full-time jobs are also advertised on the district’s website. He also met with fellow superintendents and state education officials this week to discuss the wider issue.
“This is not a Brick issue – across the board, it’s not even close,” said Farrell. “When you cut 250 staff members, you’re going to have an increase in class sizes. We’ll be cutting again this year with our budget because we’re still under S-2.”