For some of the teachers at Audubon Elementary, the back-to-school experience began last week with a pop quiz on the physics of time and space.
Upstairs, Jenny Lease was pondering how she’ll squeeze 30 sixth-graders into a space that last year held 25.
Down the hall, three of Lease’s colleagues pored over a weekly schedule for the best way to serve Rikki Beghtol’s combination class for fourth- and fifth-graders.
“I think we’ve figured it out,” Beghtol said with a look of triumph.
With classes scheduled to begin on Thursday, that kind of problem-solving is happening in every building in Spokane Public Schools.
Teachers and administrators are forming new teams and finding new efficiencies, because there is no other choice.
“We’re just excited for the kids to come back,” said Principal Kim Stretch, who lost four teachers to layoffs.
“I think we’re off to a good start,” Stretch said.
The reality isn’t nearly as dire as it appeared in April, when the district issued layoff notices to 325 employees, reassigned many others, altered its specialist model and moved ahead with other cuts to deal with a projected budget deficit of $43 million.
Since then, most of the teachers regained their jobs, or a reasonable facsimile; the district has implemented smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade; and the budget is balanced, at least for the coming year.
However, in cutting costs, Spokane Public Schools – like many other districts – has cut some corners.
Librarians were eliminated, elementary schools will be dismissed early every Friday, and the number of combo classes has increased, along with average class sizes in fourth grade and up.
That one had Lease stumped as she tried to arrange desks to accommodate the expected 30 students.
“Last year we had 25 all year long,” said Lease, who tackled the problem with the same enthusiasm she’s brought to Audubon for six years.
She revels in teaching sixth-graders because “you can actually joke around with them and have good conversations as well,” Lease said.
Lease also takes seriously the mission of making a difference for kids at Audubon, a Title I school in northwest Spokane where five students out of six receive free or reduced-price meals.
“I love the relationships you’re able to build with students,” Lease said. “Some of them don’t have the best home lives, and to provide a safe space for them, where they can connect with another student in a positive way, and an adult in a positive way, is really powerful.”
Lease will get some help, and vice versa, from the adjoining sixth-grade class. With all the reassignments, “that’s not very common in our district,” said Lease, who’s grateful to be on the same page with her partner.
“A new person would need two months to figure out how I work,” Lease said.
It’s unclear what the district plans to do at this point to alleviate overcrowded classrooms, although the school board could allocate additional funds once the school year begins.
The district has already earmarked some funds toward reducing combo classes.
Down the hall, Beghtol was figuring things out with fourth-grade teachers Leah Halloran and Erin Norman, both of whom are in new roles.
Halloran had more than a decade of teaching experience in Ohio, but that didn’t count last spring. After only a year at Stevens Elementary School, she was laid off.
After a month of uncertainty, Halloran was offered a new start at Audubon a month later.
“I loved my students at Stevens, but I’m excited to be here,” Halloran said. “I also like the training we’re getting, and how friendly everyone is and willing to help the kids.”
Last year Norman was the science specialist at Audubon – until the school opted to go with an art specialist and reassigned her to a regular classroom.
“It’s all right, because I love teaching and I’m excited to be back in the classroom,” Norman said.