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DeKalb School District 428 grapples with administrator, teacher shortfalls

DeKALB – Jennifer Tallitsch remembers living in University Village as a child of divorced parents, adopted and in poverty. She didn’t realize until later in life that her family struggled with money and, now as principal at Lincoln Elementary School, she is pushing for DeKalb School District 428 to provide her with more tools to better connect with students she knows she can relate to.

“We’re going with the least and hoping for more,” Tallitsch, who’s hoping to get a part-time assistant principal to share with nearby Tyler Elementary a few days a week, said Wednesday.

She’s one of six elementary school principals requesting that the district add three assistant principals to the payroll to float their time between two buildings each. The board is weighing whether to add $1.1 million to its $100.1 million budget to add 14 full-time equivalent positions (including assistant principals, teachers, special instructors and support staff). District administrators said the requests come from ongoing concern by building staff members who say they’re struggling under the current workload. The board seemed to support the initial request Tuesday, although some members said they’re concerned that asking for more money and staff seems to be a yearly hurdle. They’ll vote on the staff requests at a later meeting.

A District 428 graduate, Tallitsch has been principal at Lincoln for five years and oversees 300 kindergarten through fifth grade students in the building as the only administrator.

“Some weeks I feel like I’m getting a lot accomplished in the building,” Tallitsch said. “Other weeks, I feel like I’m just putting out a fire to try and help those students get through their life and to support their needs and make sure we’re following up with all of our families’ needs in the process.”

She said there are not enough hours in the day, especially as school districts begin restructuring curriculum and day-to-day programming to better address what they refer to as students’ “social emotional needs.”

Superintendent Jamie Craven and Tim Vincent, director of curriculum and instruction, said the request comes after months of consulting with teachers, principals and other building staff, and collecting data. Craven said the original request was for 26 additional positions to be added, which was whittled down to 14, which he called “essential.”

“The ideal scenario would be in all of our K-5 buildings to assist the principals in teacher evaluations, all the other responsibilities and the in-the-moment issues that pull them away because a student is in crisis,” Craven said. “And that routinely happens in all of our buildings.”

By Oct. 30, 2019, staff responded to 140 mental health crises total in all six elementary schools, according to district documents shared with the Daily Chronicle. That number totaled 593 for the 2018-19 school year. Discipline referrals by Oct. 30 were 1,169 across all elementary schools, and in the 2018-19 school year, they totaled 4,342. Out-of-school suspensions at the elementary level district-wide in the first quarter of this year came to 41 and totaled 235 in 2018-19.

What it comes down to is that student needs are outweighing the number of staff available to properly address them, argued district staff. Craven said the district is managing to “survive” with the staff they have.

Over the past five years, the district has added 346 students to its total enrollment (6,682 for 2018-19), according to the Illinois State Board of Education Report Card, and added 38 more teachers. The teacher-to-pupil ratio in 20:1 as of 2018-19, while the state average is 18:1. The administrator-to-student ratio in DeKalb is 216 students to one administrator, surpassing the state average of 173:1, according to report card data.

Some district board members expressed concern about the dollar amount attached to the staffing request, although acknowledged that more administrators and instructors are needed.

“What I’m most interested in is student outcomes,” board member Jeromy Olson said Tuesday. “So if we’re going to write a check for $118 million, what I’d like to understand is, is spending this money going to improve student outcome, and are we willing to bet on that?”

Board President Samantha McDavid said additional funding from the state’s evidence-based funding model should be used for new staff.

“From two years ago, we are in a different financial point in our district that we potentially can fill a lot of these [roles],” McDavid said. “It’s fiscally responsible to not use the funds we have to meet the needs that are there.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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